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Monday, April 30, 2012

Sunday, April 29: “Prosodic Intent”

Tom Clark’s Recent Poetry

At the Fair. BlazeVOX [Books], 2010.
Feeling for the Ground. BlazeVOX [Books], 2011.
Canyonesque. BlazeVOX [Books], 2011.
Distance.  BlazeVOX [Books], 2012.

Returning from Mendocino, I stopped over in Sacramento with my sister. In a used book store there, I found a copy of a volume of poetry by of Tom Clark that I purchased at a good price. Reading it, I was caught up in the crisp diction and its way of weaving words drawn from different landscapes both natural and absurd. I found a delightful quality of readability, call it “easy,” similar to good improvisation in good jazz. Now I have spent some pleasant hours with the Tom Clark titles recently released by Blazevox. I find a persistent pleasure in the quality of readability and in the landscape that seems so very Californian to me in retrospect, for I usually study poetry, puzzling over its pieces and its music, rather than kicking back with it. Reading poetry is a difficult art. For me it is often similar to translating from a language with which I am not as comfortable or as familiar as I would like to be. In reading Clark’s poetry, the ear with which I listen to the words is being addressed with a sense of weighted proportionality. The charm of Individual lines and the ways in which they enjamb, their elasticity has a feeling that has become the golden mean for artful unmetered verse. He writes:
Presence comes before everything, even before being
The you to whom everything once belonged
                                    from “To A Certain Friend” (Distances 65)

The doctrine of “presence” cited here is both nostalgic and stoic. The recognition of temporality as recursive form is mimed, like a ribbon turning on itself at the point where the lines wrap through enjambment. Ideas generated from a contemplation of “time” are central to the narrative of Distances  and much of Clark’s work. His lines fall over landscapes with a mapmaker’s precision:

From the flat overhead view the pieces
finally begin to fit together in a way
that makes sense, the way what you knew
and what you know, just before the end,
fold into one another as it all falls apart,
the compartments flooded, so that
the one terraced rice field may, in the flow
dynamic, counterbalance the course
of another.
             from “Above the Terraces” (Distances 68)

The folds that the mind must trace, in both quoted instances, are similar, present and past convoluted but separable vectors or segments of a curve. The resolution into terraced rice fields is spectacular, especially for one who has been to Vietnam or Bali. Distances presents a sustained and articulate discourse on the relation of the human individual to the construction of time.  The final poem is cinematic: “Time passed. There were people // gathering, milling in mute groups at the edge of the field, / small, silent. They came up /over the horizon, then fell back. This poem concludes with a wistful reference to a poem by Sohrab Sepheri (“The Distances” 73). Sepheri’s “Where is the House of my Friend” adapted from the Persian by Clark himself on his blog We have been lead through the poem as through an insistent argument and over lines that are traversed with an easy music. Clark is a sinuous follower of Pound’s dictum. “Poetry should be at least as well written as good prose.”

On Prosody
I admire the facts of readability that I have described in Tom Clark’s texts. But I also want to think about his line. At times there is a crowding of stressed or strong syllables that can seem ungainly: “flat overhead view.” His lines often seem to function as lineated prose, might or should, with some weighted syllables calling attention to themselves: ‘just before the end / fold…” Here crowded stresses are resolved into readability by the line break. This weighting and resolving of syllables seems to be the current norm for verse in English and Clark is as artful as anyone in this regard. I must often write the same way myself, but I also believe that prosody, by which I mean syllable and stress pattern, induces discoveries, of some order and of some relevance to meaning.

Let me investigate my own practice. I formed the lines below “by ear,” not as the result of an analytical strategy. I am unsure as to the degree with which I am able to claim “as mine” the music that is to be found here. Still revision that satisfies the ear is a consciously undertaken process for me as is condensation with respect to wording. Perhaps I don’t think enough about my sentences. With respect to meaning or metaphor, what I offer below is not in any sense studding. I cite it only to ask: Are there prosodic qualities other than lineation and condensed diction that mark the lines below?

The crowd milled on the docks. 
It seemed the cameras were live
and we sat in the gallery drinking cold white wine,
an albariño,
proud of our accomplishment.
                        (A North Atlantic Wall 48)
I seem to have written these lines without identifying my subject, and my purpose may remain obscure; but I do know that to my ear the play of the “o” sound in the first line resolves itself musically in the fourth and fifth lines in a fairly intricate way. I’d like to say a figured way. I find little of this quality in much of the poetry that I read today, and I do not mean simply a lyrical sonority. I mean by prosody some inherent arabesque that the language traces on multiple levels.

Silliman’s prosody
The Alphabet. The University of Alabama Press, 2008.

I find a highly charged prosody of the most intricate order curiously present on many pages of Ron Silliman’s The Alphabet, work that might be thought by some to reside at the postmodern extreme of an arc that contains Ezra Pound, Tom Clark and myself. The Alphabet is a long poem of twenty-four parts (1054 pages). Some parts like “Lit,” written largely in lines reach 60 pages or more. “Lit” contains twelve sections. Some are prose. The density of prosodic effect leaves little room for the reader to catch his or her breath. Rhyme and off-rhyme suture lines with adjacent lines and with subsequent verse paragraphs:

trust the next, it’s this,
the last, it’s that, thought
fattens, trapped in the head
abstraction’s presence left for dead.

Let’s stretch. To write, I sit in the shed
in a storm, she sent
recently her statute of limitation,
“you slime.” Plastic yellow bucket
gets my drift. Door slams.
                                    (“Lit” 268)
The semantic play between “fattens” and “stretch” or between “head” and “shed” as containers, metaphor and metonymy, sutures these lines in ways that suggest a world where it is impossible to catch a breath. The mind glides among syllables, placed with a convincing feeling for their weight, a two word sentence in a five syllable line, “Door slams,” concision that front rhymes with “’you slime.’’ Stresses are crowded without being flat, but readability comes only in patches of two or three lines at the most making the journey through a section of the poem hypnotic for its music and imagery, disturbing and disorienting on the level of semantics. meanings refuse to resolve:

Drumbeat of iambs in blood. I

will not make fun of the poem
chalked on a black board

500 times. Wipe that slate green,
           “Hidden” (The Alphabet, 61)

Resolution of sense if any, seems gratuitous, “wipe that slate green.” Is there a motive here other than verbal dazzle. Silliman’s dense prosody may only be a subjunctive to a method and that method may serve as antidote to some political realities. The method can seem formulaic, mechanical. This seems partly intention: “Poems are machines made of words,” WCW wrote. In the case of The Alphabet, the poem yields multiple instantiations of insightful diversion; energized wrinkles and folds mark quotidian perception.

I present three cases here, one a speech rhythm prosody with some of the faults and benefits of good prose, one a more entirely musical set of values, the third a baroque flippancy challenging the ability to envisage meaning. I need each of these.
. . .

Why am I writing what I have written today? Is it atonement? I owe no debts. I have no bonds circulating among my friends. Religion, family, and economics form a poetics of scarcity. In her teenage years, my sister kept notes on every film she saw, on every book she read. In that she exceeded her brother’s dedication to his art. He has avidly collected the poetry of many in his peer group. He now hopes to put his reflections in order? Hardly! He will weave with what falls into his hands.

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