Clattery MacHinery on Poetry

September 24, 2007

Alley War Poetry

   

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Marvelous Marvin Hagler vs. Thomas “The Hit Man” Hearns

Caesars Palace, Las Vegas, April 15, 1985

Announcers: Al Bernstein and Al Michaels

   

Alley War Poetry

   

The pugilists are in the desert, somewhere far from most of humanity and society. They are at a resort, however, a magnificent getaway, elevated in the middle of a roped-off ring, with cameras surrounding. They have taken the center of the world from us, and placed it into that squared area they occupy. They are poets, informing us of brutality and violence from this very different point of view.

We must relinquish our individual world centers to theirs, but in doing so, these centers merge in passing. In the merger, the metaphor is no longer a metaphor. It does not stand for affecting our lives; it affects our lives. Thus created is poetry, a poetry written before a word is spoken, before the words for it are thought of, and in vivo. Marvelous Marvin Hagler and Thomas Hearns are scripting the wordless narrative out of earshot, the good and the bad of it, a new violence for us upon first viewing, something to reflect upon afterward, something brutal with important aspects, both a metaphor and a reality to re-use for different purposes, even now again, 22 years later.

There is poetry to be found in violence. Poetry is not anti-war as such. Witnessing a four-dimensional Rubik’s cube with one color wrong, the alley war poet intuits how much unravelling must be done for a short period of resolution, until new aspects bear themselves into the world, and the cube must be re-solved–this whether one or a billion dark sides surface the wrong way, whether in times of peace or war. Violence will always be an unsolved part of the whole of us and each one of us. Indeed, when he was 13, Hagler’s home was destroyed, and people around him killed, in the race riots in Newark. But as an athlete poet, when his ideas and rhythms prevail, he is prevailing, and his message comes through.

Civilly speaking, the fight could, and arguably should be stopped (if it should have taken place at all), upon Hagler’s profuse bloodshed. In earlier ages and other places, such an event would be a fight to the death, though. This violence and brutality of boxing matches are not in our civilized centers of commerce and community centers, but under the preserve of state sanction and institutional procedure. Even still, boxers like soldiers, our young adults die and become disabled through their fighting. We understand that such brutality exists, and make it against the law. Our society, through our humanity, has drawn legal and moral lines.

Yet, we are able, through such an event, to allow our shadows, what is inhumane of our humanness, to be spoken to. This is an aspect of life that has never gone away. Like the sex drive, it may either be brought out orgiastically; or in recession, monastically; but it remains part of us. The taller we are in the light, the longer the shadow, from each given vantage point. Hagler, for instance, his entire adult life, no matter where he has lived, has given himself to causes for children, as they mature in the world, and as they die in hospitals.

Sometimes the line before violence and brutality disappears. This can happen within the individual, within families, within social groups or gangs, and, during wartime. Poetry may unveil this.
   

by Wilfred Owen
   

Dulce Et Decorum Est
   

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!–An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.

   

Wilfred Owen gives us brutal word poetry here, the violence everpresent in being human is heavy, the darkness brought to light. From where he stood, the darkness is out in the open. The events in this poem, however, were neither staged nor so scripted by the people doing the violence. The main character, the hero, is dying, then dead. It is gruesome. The poem existed where muses exist, and was written into words by one who would otherwise be a background player, one of the other soldiers.

But where is the poetry? Is it in his words? Not essentially. Essentially, it is in the unfolding story. It is pre-verbal: Chopin, Marceau, and Hagler. In this sense what we usually think of as poetry, is a sub genre. It is word poetry.

Let’s attempt to shift the metaphor of the poet from the pugilists to the announcers, Bernstein and Michaels. This makes Hagler and Hearns the main characters in an unfolding drama. The announcers are witnessing an event. Before their eyes, two warriors with great heart, hope and humanity are duking it out. A golden story seems to be unfolding, inspiring them. Bernstein and Michaels are streaming their words, as they relate this to us, their imagined audience, spontaneously, with repetition, simile, metaphor, alliteration, and meter that together borders on the music of song. Sometimes they really are singing.

This, then, could be thought of as a (p)entacostal event. The shaman (here, the pugilist) takes the journey into the breadths and depths of human nature, and comes back with something that the village priest is capable of interpreting into the lives of us lay people. Nowadays, the poet is expected to do both, take the inspirational journey of the hero, and then write it down for the rest of us to read and re-center from, or at least keep in our pockets for later reference. But there is a catch.

When Owen wrote Dulce Et Decorum Est, it was reflective. His journey was internal and after-the-fact. A poet may tell us fiction, but Owen relates something that had happened, something he witnessed in real life. Both the essential poetry and the verbal poetry came from him–what we have come to expect from our poets. Note too that, although it is often recited, the poem’s birth event is in written, not spoken, form–not to say he was not whispering or even singing the lines as he composed, maybe he was. Nor was he dancing or beating a drum. Both Hagler and Hearns, however, were in their ways dancing. Our shamans speak to us in many ways.

Bernstein and Michaels have a poetic event unfolding before them. Their poetics are of the spoken language kind (and here I don’t mean to compare or even debate poetic ability, simply to grant that they speak in verse). Note instead, that their rhythms are different from the rhythms of the fighters. That’s the catch I mentioned. It is a split we witness, between the movement and focus of the pugilists, and the versification of the announcers. The event a poet relates, is decidedly different from the event of its relating. The verbal poem has a different sense, sound, and rhythm than the essential poetry inspiring it.

In case there is any tension, let’s bridge this gap between the spontaneous relating of an inspirational event, and the practiced writing of poetic reflection. Here is Jack Kerouac’s spontaneous bop prose, as he called it, in “On the Road”:

“He’s mad,” I said, “and yes, he’s my brother.” I saw Dean coming back with the farmer in his tractor. They hooked chains on and the farmer hauled us out of the ditch. The car was muddy brown, a whole fender was crushed. The farmer charged us five dollars. His daughters watched in the rain. The prettiest, shyest one hid far back in the field to watch and she had good reason because she was absolutely and finally the most beautiful girl Dean and I ever saw in all our lives. She was about sixteen, and had Plains complexion like wild roses, and the bluest eyes, the most lovely hair, and the modesty and quickness of a wild antelope. At every look from us she flinched. She stood there with the immense winds that blew clear down from Saskatchewan knocking her hair about her lovely head like shrouds, living curls of them. She blushed and blushed.

The rhythms in Kerouac’s bop prose, are not the rhythms of a car being yanked out of a ditch. The sounds are not close either. What a racket it must have been, and a sight and emotional sense for all to witness. But the pacing at first is as if Kerouac was somewhat out of breath, or maybe becomes a bit breathless as he recalls the event. In describing the beautiful daughter, we do not get her rhythms either, nor the rhythms of the wind blowing. We get the pacing of the witness (Jack Kerouac’s Sal Paradise), his vantage, his rhythms. We understand at once, how we could be him with his eyes, how this certain part of him seems to be a certain part of us, but in our own reflection, how we are different from him. Through his wording, we surmise as best we can, what was really taking place, both within the scene described, and within the describer.

Imagine that Bernstein and Michaels could not make it to Las Vegas. Instead, the promoters asked if they could put a microphone up to Hagler in order that he give us, in his own words, the unfolding details of the fight. Could we expect poetry from his words? I cannot help thinking of Muhammad Ali, who may have been poetic with his words before and after a fight, and maybe during as he taunted his opponents, but the poetry of his athletics was something else again. Bob Dylan is a poet in this wider sense, a song poet, which is different from being a word poet. Chopin is a poet of the piano specifically, and Marceau a poet of mime. The poetry of the artist or athlete is found in what is practiced.

Owen and Kerouac, were each able, at some juncture, to experience the poetry of the moments they relate–then as poets of the word, communicate such essence to us after the fact. In both cases, there is nothing goody-goody about what the people are doing. Owen’s war is evident. His hero is dying, a victim. Kerouac’s scene, on the other hand, involves the reckless destruction of a car, leading to the potential womanizing of a 16-year-old girl by a couple older guys passing through town. His heroes are culprits.

Whereas Owen has us look squarely at the dark side of human nature from the attitude of the light, Kerouac has us looking at the light from the vantage of the darkness. Hagler is doing the same as Kerouac, only instead of bringing fiction to an actual event, he actualizes a hoped-for event, walking through the necessary dark alley to get to the light–taking us with him like a good poet would. Here is such a poetic relationship with violence, through Iraq veteran and poet Brian Turner:
   

   

Turner begins his poem “Here, Bullet,” with what could have been the words of Marvelous Marvin Hagler if he could have scripted words into his fight with Thomas Hearns:

If a body is what you want,
then here is bone and gristle and flesh.
Here is the clavicle-snapped wish,
the aorta’s opened valves, the leap
thought makes at the synaptic gap.
Here is the adrenaline rush you crave,
that inexorable flight, that insane puncture
into heat and blood. And I dare you to finish
what you’ve started.

The world yearns for the good fight, a real live hero fighting for good to prevail, and knows the violence of it exists out there, even if in a far-off desert where poets or shamans sojourn, even if ducking from bullets in a tenement in New Jersey somewhere.
   


   

After the fight, Hagler spoke of his concern, that he hoped the fans got their money’s worth, the scheduled 15-rounder ending before the bell of the third round. He was assured that this was the case. This is not a necessary attribute of a poet, wanting others and posterity to benefit from individual inspiration. It’s good to see, though. But, whether they care or not, the poets’ service is invaluable, if only in that we come together as witnesses to each other and, therefore, ourselves. What’s even better, is if we can then continue with a conversation, informed by the poet. Here is the ending to Turner’s poem:

                        Because here, Bullet,
here is where I complete the word you bring
hissing through the air, here is where I moan
the barrel’s cold esophagus, triggering
my tongue’s explosives for the rifling I have
inside of me, each twist of the round
spun deeper, because here, Bullet,
here is where the world ends, every time.

As the modern poet, he accepts that he is shaman, who must complete the communicative process, and write it down for us, how “the world ends, every time.” He continues the conversation, from the vantage point of a soldier who has witnessed too often what Owen witnessed. It is from here, he seems to be responding to Carl Jung’s thoughts on death:
   

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January 4, 2007

Misplaced Leisure Water: The Displaced Function of Poetry

   
   
In a Books Inq. blog post from yesterday, the Philadelphia Inquirer’s books editor, Frank Wilson, linked to this item in Poetry Magazine:

Does Poetry Have a Social Function?

Here is some of what he wrote:

On New Year’s Eve, one of our dinner guests, a beautiful Chinese woman, read several classical Chinese poems for us. This proved that Auden was right when he said that when you hear real poetry it doesn’t matter if you know the language–you know it is poetry. Our friend also sang, with the voice of an angel, one of Li Bai’s poems. It is this sort of experience of poetry that makes such a question as the one posed on this link seem so banal. The essence of poetry is enchantment, not utility.

What follows, is a response to both Frank Wilson’s blog post and the article on Poetry’s web site, which is a conversation among poets Stephen Burt, Daisy Fried, Major Jackson, and Emily Warn.
   
   

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I found the answers banal. I was hoping Major Jackson would kick the discussion into gear. Daisy Fried spoke too often about what she considers politically correct for poets to write about. Whereas the poet must write what the poet is given to write, hopefully having gold and not mud, and whether it agrees with Fried’s politics or not.

To Joseph Campbell, the poet of current society was the shaman of the past, still being born as ever. Inspiration, whether something is carried over from primordial soup, communicated by muse-gods, given by God, whether from an extra-sensitivity to the sounds of earth or some yet-charted waves from distant novas exploding, there is a constancy to what shamans and poets produce. Wisdom is wisdom. Art is art. And poetry is poetry.

One social value of fresh poetry, then, is to say in current terms what had been said in classic poetry and scripture. For whatever the current society, it has inevitably misinterpreted its poetry, inevitably bringing about outdated customs and neurotic modes of thinking, but also grave consequences.

Poetry does not have to have such meaning, though. It may have only its sound or, as Frank Wilson points out, the sound and the poet present to speak it. I experienced this listening to Ko Un. As much enjoyment came from his speaking the poems as through the anticipation of what his translator would say in English. This is the music of poetry.

It is not necessary for a poem to contain both wisdom and music. But in some of the best poems, these aspects work together, the rhythm, the sounds, and language.

I want to take up the poem these poets were discussing, “The Mill-Race” by Anne Winters. Here is a link to the poem in full on the page:

PoetryFoundation.org: The Mill-Race

And here is a link to Anne Winters reading it:

New York Times: Books: Audio: Anne Winters Reads From ‘The Displaced of Capital’

I was struck by the “leisure water.” It represents poetry. A complaint within the poem is that the bus riders are losing the poetry of their lives, that even this was being placed at the whim and utility of the current economy and politics. How extraordinarily anti-poetry.

But this “leisure water” also answers the very question of a function of poetry. A thirst sure, but in the poem, the water reflects the sky, and it is in a “glib stretch” (italics mine).

Here are excerpts wherein the poets discuss that poem:
   
   
Daisy Fried:

Anne Winters’s “The Mill-Race,” about office workers in lower Manhattan, contains virtuoso description of the urban scene: workers, weather, light, limos of the bosses, buses of the employees. Though its subject matter and politics are both clear and attractive, content has very little to do with why the poem is extraordinary. Is it a useful poem? I like political poetry; it acknowledges that politics are part of life. Certainly at this historical moment, many of us are hungry for poems that look outward, not just into the self or into what seems like another kind of narcissism, a turning away via the knee-jerk (therefore empty) “avant garde” linguistic gesture. America’s crimes may be forcing poets back into the world. It’s not as though it’s optional. Eventually it becomes political necessity.
   
   
Emily Warn:

“The Mill-Race” by Anne Winters serves as proof text. How can its content not matter? How can one not relate to the drained faces of the women office workers on an evening bus, to their scant hope that, despite their misspent, dwindling hours in the service of Labor, they have preserved a shred of self? . . . .It won’t take us
altogether, we say, the mill-race–it won’t churn us up altogether. We’ll keep
a glib stretch of leisure water, like our self’s self–to reflect the sky.
But we won’t (says the bus rider now to herself). Nothing’s
left over, really, from labor. They’ve taken it all for the mill-race.Will this poem end drudgery? No. Does it disclose the pathos of other human beings and the source of their suffering? Yes. Is it this capacity that will help us, better than ammo or dollars, find a way through these harrowing times? Absolutely.
   
   
Daisy Fried:

Emily Warn seems to argue that content supplies poems’ utility. Content matters–poetry is far more than a formal game–but does not supply utility. Quality does. “The Mill-Race” is good and useful because it presents in extraordinary language an aspect of the human condition, not some false solution having to do with feel-good “relat(ing) to drained faces.” Emily should reread the very lines she quotes if she thinks this poem is about workers “preserv(ing) a shred of self.” The poet is there on the bus, we are there, we are all in the mill-race.
   
   
Emily Warn:

Poems such as “The Mill-Race” make us aware of the social conditions that shape our relations; their language helps us dwell in, puzzle out, and feel the conditions and the relations, no matter how terrible, making a change in them more possible. It is this possibility, this hope, that makes poetry as necessary as a paycheck. “The Mill-Race” ends on the word “salt,” (“but it’s mostly the miller’s curse-gift, forgotten of God yet still grinding, the salt-/mill, that makes sea, salt”). The salt sting is both our empathy for the workers’ weariness and the fact of their individual lives ground to salt. Over centuries, the poem also says, these workers have raised cathedrals, invented art. The work, “the curse-gift” of the poet, is to tell the story of a person who has no story other than the story of relations. As Celan wrote, “I am you/if I am.”
   
   
Stephen Burt:

Rather, my point is that different poems do different things, and good poems (such as “The Mill-Race”) do many things at once. If there are universal truths about the communicative functions in poems–truths about all good poems, not just about “The Mill-Race”–they are so universal that they do not count as social, by my lights: they concern communication among just two persons at a time, whether the two meet face-to-face, or whether implicit author and genuine reader live thousands of years apart.
   
   

   
   
. . . .
   
   
They never merge the point of the discussion with the point of the poem. It is almost as if the poem worked its way into everyone’s subconscious, but they never worked out why. No one mentioned that this poem is about a social function poetry can have. They simply used it as if it functioned.

This is part of how we participate in the art or poetry that we make of the sounds, clay, landscapes that we have. We take sounds and make music, fields and make golf courses, food and make fine cuisine, words and make poems, and so forth–and we use them in our lives. And just as sometimes the poet cannot fulfill the muse, the reader does not either. Thus more poetry needed.

I went to the web to get support for this point, and found it made in a most unlikely way by Dan Chiasson here:

Slate: The Anne Winters Challenge: Should a Marxist poet be stylistically ornate?

He quotes the last stanza:

It’s not a water-mill really, labor. It’s like the nocturnal
paper-mill pulverizing, crushing each fiber of rag into atoms,
or the workhouse tread-mill, smooth-lipped, that wore down a London of doxies and sharps,
or the flour-mill, faërique, that raised the cathedrals and wore out hosts of dust-demons,
but it’s mostly the miller’s curse-gift, forgotten of God yet still grinding, the salt-
mill, that makes the sea, salt.

Here is the question he is asking:

What to do about this “faerique in the flour mill” issue–the frisson between subject matter and poetic language?

Aha! Nice. Here we have a discussion of the disconcert between the language in the poem and the lives of the bus riders. That’s what’s missing in their lives, the poetry. Specifically this poem. Point made in the asking of a question. Thank you, Mr. Chiasson.

But here is what Chiasson says:

But when you start bringing these kinds of objections up–when they start interfering with your enjoyment of works of art—you realize what an impoverished discussion we’ve all been having, these past years, about art and its connection to experience. We’ve come to imagine that there needs to be a traceable, obvious connection between “style” in art and subject matter. An art of the people better have lots of swear-words and spitting in it. And honking horns. An art of the intellect should be about Big Ideas. An art of theoretical density has got to be unintelligible. An art of great beauty should mention snow fields and sunsets. Art by Southerners should be full of dirt-roads and hounds. If this sounds parodic, read around in contemporary literature with my inventory in mind. Contemporary literature is parodic.

Oh well.

By the way, the poets took up the idea of the “Hard-working Roto Rooter reading poetry.” But none of them mentioned that it is that guy writing it.
   
   

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