|Jul/Aug 2011 Reviews & Interviews|
Swallow Press. 2010. 62 pp.
Upgraded to Serious
Copper Canyon Press. 2009. 120 pp.
Several years ago, Malcolm Gladwell, the author of the highly popular book The Tipping Point: How Little Things Make a Big Difference, added yet another phrase to our common intellectual currency. In his 2008 book, Outliers: The Story of Success, he informed his readers that the single trait shared by all the most successful professionals, in all fields, was 10,000 hours of practice in the skills of their endeavor before they reached the age of twenty. This amounts to roughly three hours per day for a decade.
These 10,000 hours do not apply only to those who are less naturally talented, according to Gladwell. All the talent in the world will do little to put one at the top of one's field without that decade of practice. With those hours of application, even a middling talent will prove to be far the better practitioner.
It is difficult to imagine just what "practice" would amount to for a young poet. Writing reams of poetry, presumably. But does reading poetry and critical texts count, as well? On the other end of the question, as it were, it is equally as difficult to know just what criteria place a poet at the pinnacle of the craft. According to book blurbs, the poetry of our times is exceptional to the point that the highest superlatives apply to almost every new volume.
Then there is the fact that poets tend, as the rule, to be rather late bloomers. The percentage of poets who publish a first volume after they are 30 years old seems to have skyrocketed since the 1980s. They seem rarely to apply themselves to actually writing considerable amounts of poetry until college age. This to say that what targeted practice poets do seem to get most often comes after the age of twenty.
Still, I submit, those poets who seem to have spent more long, lonely hours on practicing their craft do write better, on the whole, than do those poets who achieve their notoriety via more social means and/or networking. While those hours they put toward their craft before the age of twenty may be particularly formative, their practice tends to come largely after that and it tends to make a great deal of difference as to how well they write.
Before Ohio University's Swallow Press published Garrick Davis's Terminal Diagrams, Davis was quite successful in the poetry world. He had founded and edited The Contemporary Review, worked for the National Endowment for the Arts, in Washington, D. C., and edited an exceptional anthology of literary criticism, also published by Swallow Press, Praising It New: the Best of the New Criticism. I have previously reviewed Praising It New, here at Eclectica (http://www.eclectica.org/v13n3/purdy_davis.html), in glowing terms.
Davis's concept, in Terminal Diagrams, is as exciting as the ultra-modern chrome-silver covers would suggest. While almost all the poems within its covers are formal, their images are entirely contemporary. That one of those poems is a loose translation of Apollinaire's "Zone" is very much to the point. Davis's intent, as much as anything, is upon being a new Apollinaire (who, by the bye, for all his modernity, regularly wrote in form) of the 21st century.
The world Terminal Diagrams portrays is a contemporary landscape thoroughly blighted because it has replaced tradition with laissez faire everything, beauty with the machine. At times this arrives at nicely turned images, as this one from "Metal Machine Images":
These blips and beeps,
Instead of notes, one hears
Are a machine's conceits
But, some half-dozen lines down, in the same poem, it can also arrive at overwritten, heavy handed moralizing, sprinkled with references to a discarded canon.
Davis finds the post-post-modern, post-industrial world an unremittingly grim, soul-killing place:
A heaven without the expense
Of damnation and consequence
And all the best appliances...
While this is not likely to win him readers, that is not really to the point so long as he successfully makes his case. It bears saying, however, that the single most attractive quality of Apollinaire's poetry is its celebration of the ironic beauty of the new world in the midst of its grim realities.
As all of this might suggest, there is little shading, little fine touch in the poems of Terminal Diagrams, and, those that do have shading tend to be the better in the volume. Not only do they tend to be better, but poems such as "At the Underground Club: Taxi Café," "Christmas Invocation," and the title poem are everything we might hope for from a 21st century Apollinaire (albeit, a deeply cynical one). Others such as "Cost Benefit Analysis" and "Christmas Shopping at Horton Plaza" lack only a humility in the face of the complexities of life and they would be every bit as good.
Garrick Davis's Terminal Diagrams is the product of an exciting concept. The author clearly has a great deal of natural talent. But he also clearly has a ways to go before he has clocked his 10,000 hours for which reason the quality of his poems is very uneven. As contrarian as his poetry is, he especially needs the kind of resources that only come from those lonely hours.
Heather McHugh, on the other hand, has put in her 10,000 hours many times over. Her Upgraded to Serious has no more philosophy to it than comes from the natural tendency to adopt the world view of the groups to which one belongs. That philosophy, such as it is, is not appreciably different from that of thousands of other less practiced poets in and out of academia. As a result of these things, she has won many awards and grants, most recently the highly prestigious MacArthur Foundation "Genius" Grant.
Over several decades, McHugh's poetry has steadily moved from her own personal version of the confessional style once so overwhelmingly popular to her own personal versions of what Tony Hoagland has called the poetry of the "third wave":
...an era of enormous wit and verbal linguistic play, and a lot of different kinds of rhetorical play that we haven't seen in a long time.
As Hoagland points out, much of this third wave poetry is ironically a poetry that could be labeled "aestheticism," but McHugh is so utterly in command of her craft that she manages a smidgen of substance (of her group's philosophy, that is to say) whenever she is of a mind to.
Nevertheless, rules are rules and Upgraded to Serious goes with the epigraph: "I love Method, extremely." It describes the volume well: aesthetic, all-in, and written by one of the rare few contemporary poets who has read Matthew Prior (or any poet from the 18th century, for that matter, Pope, perhaps, excepted) from whom the quote comes.
This identifies her as a persistent follower rather than an innovator, but, with her bulging tool kit, she tends to take the lead in short order. The poems of Upgraded to Serious are simply among the better being written today. The third wave has called upon her to play with words and that has always been her first love. These lines from "Tree Farm" are representative:
Manned by some unsteady creature,
one Dodge truck has backed into a crèche;
and thanks to pigeons, several wise men are defiled.
A city father and his son, who had
To sit all day, have come
from officework and school; they know the ways
of pencil sharpeners: they press against their tools.
The "creature/crèche" end-rhyme is as distant as it is fun. Almost as amusing is the "pigeons/his son" internal rhyme, which, read aloud, reveals itself actually to be a hidden end-rhyme. Change the line breaks to fit the reading and the lines reveal iambic tetrameter:
...and thanks to pigeons
several wise men are defiled.
A city father and his son
who had to sit all day, have come
These are among McHugh's favorite tools (including the quick rhyme of "wise/defiled") and she finishes this particular flourish with a shortened final line to give it a little back beat (an effect that every decent poet used to know in Prior's day):
from officework and school;
they know the ways of pencil sharpeners:
they press against their tools.
Elsewhere she will rhyme "presumption" with "someone," "haunts" with "nuance," "lineages" with "Linnaeus," "heads in" with "heaven," play with the dissonant consonance of "match-butcher-touch-hatchet," sprinkle etymologies, shamelessly pun. The line breaks, such as they appear on the page, avoid the worst accusations, while the generally anti-poetic subject matter, the preference for metonymy (or no meto-/meta- at all) over metaphor, and the Lilliputian scale (she's read her Swift) keeps it third wave. In this way, she has her cake and eats it too.
Not that all internal rhymes are disguised end-rhymes, by any means, or that McHugh never writes good old fashioned free verse. In the poem "Hackers Can Sidejack Cookies," for example, the computer programmers' enormously inventive cant is the ultimate of contemporary subject matter:
Logic bombs can get inside
back doors. There were publishing bang paths
ten hops long. Designs succumbing
to creeping featuritis
are banana problems.
("I know how to spell banana
but I don't know how to stop.")
Before you reconfigure,
mount a scratch monkey.
Too much rhyming would only get in the way here. So would trying to make the poem arrive at some overarching idea.
Nor that she is only about aesthetics and fun. The substance expressed in "From the Tower," for example, is deadly serious and has only grown stronger from its inception in post-modernism until the third wave:
Teach us to bear life's senselessness, and our
own insignificance. Let's call that sanity.
The terrifying prospect isn't some poor
sucker in a La-Z-Boy, inclined to some jokes,
remotes, or sweets. It is the busy hermeneut,
so serious he's sour, intent on making
meaning of us all...
If hapless, he is a drag, if empowered, he is the secular equivalent of a demonic being who mutilates innocent children into horribly disfigured adults. And, as McHugh's poem reinforces, he is a he: male, heterosexual, almost certainly of European descent, and determined to keep his enhanced status by enforcing perverse traditional western methods of reasoning on the world.
Of course, this is a description of Garrick Davis (call it "reviewer's license"). McHugh's sentiment is a commonplace but arguably consists only so long as one's world is so vastly wealthy that it can afford to maintain an extensive network of MFA programs. Davis's sentiments are no longer, on the other hand, commonplace, although the collapse of so much wealth, over the past several years, has given various sorts of hermeneutics new currency. The hermeneut is a bear market player.
Still, even the growing number of readers who appreciate traditional poetical and/or philosophical structure are likely to find Davis's perspective too grim. At the very least, it requires the kind of consistent technical mastery that comes with those 10,000 hours. Presumably, at some point in those hours shading creeps in and perhaps just a touch of ambivalence together with a more consistent command of his tools.