Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Anachronistic Pasture

I have set myself up to be a critic of the Necropastoral, a movement more in love with the living dead-ness and "uncanny" offspring of cyberspace, rather than the pasture of the traditional lyricism which approaches the physical sublime a poet may seek out, by way of exploring, or sauntering. For the poem, the movement out into the pasture, as a place for the poem, is for Joyelle McSweeney, a move toward anachronism.

It isn't hard to see how right McSweeney is, even if I wish she was wrong. An example is a recent eChapbook published by Blue Hour Press, No Silence in the Field, by Rachel Mennies, a lovely book of poems capturing various voices in the rural farmland of New England. The setting alone puts itself in danger of anachronism (where is Robert Frost these days?) so there's a sense that, even if we are temporally in the present, the present is ambiguous, where even appliances such as "the Kitchenaid whirs by the old feed storage" (13) is suspect. I feel this is deliberate on Mennies' part. "Rural" is a space pregnant with possibilities that soon miscarry; not a bad analogy, since miscarriage is a central tension in Mennies' book, climaxing in a beautifully heart-breaking poem "What Killed All the Bees" (24). 

It is the chapbook's final poem, "Morning, The Diggers Break New Ground" that the miscarriage of the New England farm is seen in full, the planks of the barn being taken down for new houses. "Time for the miracle of multiplying / strip the barn walls and make ten houses / where one once thrived" (30). The death of the barn bears an uncanny progeny. This is the living present, where what characters we knew are now discovered by means of their antique possessions, already beginning to rot. The conclusion is a dismantling of a landscape, perhaps the natural end to any rural image, but its a cynicism I'm not yet willing to share. 

This post mostly wished to present Mennies' book, which is lovely, so go read it. I remark only on our present dilemma of being unable to write the rural/agrarian into any contemporary present. Later posts will look at poems that are attempting this, and how they succeed or fail.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Poet's Journey

Among his many epithets, including hodio, patron of travelers, the Greek god Hermes is also oneiropompous, conductor of dreams, and psychopompos, conveyer of souls. Hermes is guide physical and spiritual, the god of the Poet, guiding the poet through the "membrane" of the uncanny before Apollo descends with the lyre Hermes made for him. Hermes directs the poet to the steps of the Delphic Oracle, to an audience with the underworld Queen. Hermes arrives in daylight undisguised and impregnates first.

In 1929, a young man went to a crossroads in Mississippi and at midnight the devil taught the young man to play the blues. Robert Johnson had to travel to lose his soul for the sake of the blues.

The poet must explore, and be guided, in order to achieve blessing. This is Thoreau's saunter -- or sans terre, to be without land, or to be a pilgrim, a holy-lander, a Sainte Terrer. This exploration is either physical, psychological, or both. As often is the case in American poetics, Dickinson and Whitman mark the dividing line: when Dickinson starts early and takes her dog, the mental/spiritual/psychological processes of the world soon overpower her. It is the walk that begins it; for Whitman, it is not psychology but the physical environment that leads to the expression of deep sublimity. Whitman is not prone to keeping it inside, rather "sounds his barbaric yawp" upon the multitudes and democratic masses of his landscape. "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" is my favorite example of such a physical exploration. 

In the 21st century there seems to be two sites of exploration. The first is cybernetic, attached to the open window of the browser, the endless page on page that I believe is Joyelle McSweeney's real "necropastoral." It is the living dead-ness of cyberspace many of us sit down to day after day, aware a living world beyond our screen; but "disconnecting" is now a very strangely disconnecting experience. This cybernetic ground is a psychological space, and poetry invested in this space is more psychologically uncanny than other spaces, linking it to the darker realms of the Romantic and lyrical poetics, such as Coleridge or Prospero. In further posts I will explore examples of those poems.

Joshua Carey in a post from last year, questions the poetry that leans toward the uncanny, a poetics he sees as passing through Olsen's lineage and is (I would say) given more clout as the landscape of poetry moves from the book to cyberspace. Here things are even weirder. But Carey calls for moderation: "There has to be a role for the rational, even a humbled and supplemented rationality, in a poetics that is nonetheless not instrumental but re-open the foreclosed world."

To me, this is remembering what lives beyond the window of the screen, what is the world "out there." That is physical exploration, with its reaches into the uncanny and the real. But I must move even farther from what is popular today, and that is to say that even the urban landscape is a place deadened by the psychology of being urban. It dangerously treads through malaise, the morose and the cynical so its uncanniness is even more putrid and dangerous. It has no renewal, no love. It seeks out the pastoral to moderate its discomfort. Rather than allow the rural and pastoral to do so, I propose we begin to explore once more that state of being, more naturally the space of Whitman and Dickinson and Thoreau. This is western poetry, the poetry of landscapes where human beings play little part. I propose we bring the poetics of the pasture back into the American landscape. Robert Johnson had to go to the crossroads to sell his soul and learn his instrument. We too must take that journey.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Kicking Gravel Re-Boot

Why Kicking the Gravel?

1. Look to where the gravel goes once it's kicked: it is a sprayed action. Once the dust settles, there is little that has changed. To kick gravel is to make a mark that goes unnoticed. Each pebble is likely to make sense here as it is here. Little is changed when gravel is kicked, unless the gravel is thin and the foot's mark is noticeable. Symbolically the gravel represents poetry. If this blog makes a mark we'll know that poetry is exceptionally thin.

2. The gravel I kick may go entirely unnoticed, but for You, who may or may not have stumbled here to watch the splayed action of a kick, or perhaps kick a little yourself. The kicking motion immediately makes transient what wasn't before, but very quickly it goes unnoticed. Your eye tilts back upward to the web address, in search of something else. Generally you only kick gravel when by your self, or with someone so close as to kick gravel with you, also your self. This is such a place for me.

3. "Why do I feel no shame, kicking the loose gravel home?"
~ Richard Hugo, "White Center"

4. There are two ways to kick gravel: the first is incidental, the second is with purpose. The purposeful kick is often done on the walk that is to go no where, on the saunter, as it were, and the moment of kicking gravel is a moment to affect the physical world because one has nothing better to do. The other option of the purposeful kick is catharsis, and I guess on a blog that might happen too. Whatever emotion is pent up in the self is expressed by the scattering of pebbles forward, which clearly become invisible in the gravel they landed in so that whatever emotion might have been in them as they flew forward, whatever energy was expended at that time is no longer noticeable and the eye moves to the next page. I do not intend for this to be a place for that sort of catharsis.

The incidental kick is whatever one does on a walk -- we are consistently, as moving objects in the world, affecting the world in which we live. A stumble, a shuffle, a leg moving forward can easily kick without intent. Just as any word placed onto the world wide web has its own place, incidentally, it can be pointed to for meaning, although lost in its surroundings.

5. The gravel road is a road that straddles the city and country. It straddles the natural and the artifice. It is itself a hybrid of what is natural and artificial. Unlike concrete, gravel gives the peripatetic a feeling closer to the Earth; unlike earth, gravel is a man-made process, however close it might be to what a river can do. Poetry also balances between its artifice and what it represents. Entirely man-made, it seeks to be as close to what artifice it is rather than be wholly (concretely) with man.

Not every poem is really that way. Some poets have made poems that are closer to concrete than to earth. That will be a subject of a later post.