In a review Sandra Tappenden wrote a while back for my Exultations
& Difficulties website, she asked of
a particularly prosy passage in a poem, 'How is this poetry?' As an editor,
when I read that I hesitated slightly because it's the kind of question
people who don't like 'modern poetry' often ask ..... but then, of course, I realised
it was THE question that had to be asked, because what she had in front of
her was, to her mind, a chunk of not especially interesting prose
masquerading as a poem. It happens. And I remembered this while I was reading
Donna Masini's Turning To Fiction.
There are different ways prose masquerades as poetry. One is where the
writing actually is prose
chopped up, and if it was presented as prose you'd not bat an eyelid, it'd be
as good or bad as it happened to be. What it won't have is any of the qualities
I'd suggest are essential if something is going to be called a poem, among
which I'd say were a definite inner and outer design, an unassailable sense
of itself as something made and not to be broken or tampered with, and a
complete resistance to paraphrase. Alternatively, what you might get could be
neither one thing nor the other, to whit:
It's a dingy
shiver of longing in a cross of red leash,
to a parking meter, and I'm watching it -
unfamiliar Starbucks, waiting for my ride,
open, 7 a.m. - sort of sniffing around,
a word, a rub, a scratch. I want to go to
the curb and
pat him but that would be immediate
Here you have a kind of fuzzy quasi-poetic first phrase (which must be poetry
because it's difficult to figure out what it actually means) and a somewhat
unusual 'shrugged', but then the information about the writer being in
Starbucks (must be a writer: has a notebook) is not necessary to the poem,
it's a prose manoeuvre, and of itself not interesting, and that last
sentence, with its 'immediate gratification' is really leaden. If this is
anything more than not very well-written diary then I'm on the wrong train.
But now, here's your test: arrange this shambles into lines so it looks like
a poem. Donna Masini does it thus:
It's a dingy
shiver of longing
in a cross of
to a parking
meter, and I'm watching it -
unfamiliar Starbucks, waiting
for my ride,
notebook open, 7 a.m. -
sniffing around, yearning
for a word, a
rub, a scratch.
I want to go
to the curb
and pat him
but that would be immediate
I'm very interested in line-breaks, and Masini is quite big on them. For
example, the first poem in the book, 'A Sign', has
........ I am
about sex, about the way we
desire thrumming, the air
it, without coming
borders of our yearning.
And I'm sorry, but that line-break at 'coming' is just SO obvious..... an
obviousness made all the more cringe-inducing by the dreadfulness of the line
that follows it ('The Borders Of Our Yearning' would make a great title for a
terrible book). She does this kind of thing lots, presumably because along
with chopping everything up into stanzas it helps make what she's doing seem
more like poetry.
Masini's book is actually about what it says it is: it's about how we
fictionalise aspects of our lives, and turn to fictions in our heads and on
our bookshelves to make sense of things and to get through difficulties. It
is also a book driven by loss, loss as in divorce, and also the premature
deaths of what I take to be four of the poet's close friends.
Which is all serious and interesting, and which makes it all the more
disturbing to have to say that this is more or less completely horrible as
poetry. As something else it might be okay. It wouldn't be a barrel of
laughs, but it could be insightful and
rewarding. But poetry? Give me a break. Take a look at the start of
I want too
There's nothing to do
at the side
of the bed, nothing
I can say to
already begun to take place.
To take her place. Occasionally
thirsty. Ice chips! I cry,
spoon the chips, sideways, into her
mouth so I
don't drip water on her gown.
Putting this stuff into little three-line clusters doesn't make it a poem.
The trouble is, it's all so sensitive and caring and thoughtful, and so many
of the poems tell about unhappy childhood memories and heartbreaking adult
concerns that you can easily imagine a poetry audience lapping it up,
especially as Ms. Masini appears, from the photograph on the cover, to be a
very personable poet.
While Masini's book is full of stuff that looks like poems
but isn't really, Deborah Bernhardt's Echolalia is full of stuff that doesn't always look quite like what you might
call conventional poetry, but it has more poetry on one page than Masini gets
into a hundred. Indeed, some of it is in prose, which proves my point. It is
also bursting with wit and personality, something I neglected to mention
Donna Masini's book was more or less completely lacking. And whereas Masini
seems content to say things as ordinarily as possible, Bernhardt says what
she likes in her own ear- and eye-catching fashion and revels in it. Here she
goes, from the top of page one:
WITH THE EYE,
sort-by-word setting, a book of poems.
If you like
words, you favor a kinda kind of words.
that could be a prediliction.
Or Gen X
Froot Loop Soho words. Or lots
of esses, in general, could get to
you, like the suss
stockings. Or maybe
combinations: hybrid high bird, vis-ˆ-vis, visa visa, arriba arriba.
I think one
of the addresses in this here poem
might like fire-fangled
feathers dangle down. F-stop. F-forward,
to the end of
the mind, all the way up to preference Q,
all the way up to R (no one ever knows a mind
all the way
to Z). (cf. V. Woolf).....
Bernhardt's way with language is playful but also careful. (Now I've said
this I have to figure out what I mean. Hold on. I have to scratch my head. Oh
right, this is it, maybe: (close brackets))
I really like a crafted poem (there really should be no other kind), but not
all crafted poems. The thing is, some poems are crafted and look it and are
often boring as a consequence. Other poems can at first glance seem like
they've just been tipped on to the page from out of a bin and sometimes they
have. Sometimes they haven't. But the art of working hard and shaping and
choosing and making the crafted poem appear casual and spontaneous is a
difficult one, and those poets and poems that pull it off are among my
favourites, not least because that apparent casualness is usually an
indication that the poet is not completely up themselves and the poems are
readable and you want to read them again. (At this point I should point out
that this is not a rocket surgery sort of scientific point of academic
literary criticism, or even remotely provable; it's more along the lines of
an I know I'm right kind of thing, but I also know there are exceptions, so
let's move on along....and quickly.)
In the last couple of lines in the book, in the poem entitled 'Fax To
E.E.Cummings' Bernhardt says
i want i
but there is nothing at all random about these restless and witty and often
bewildering poems. There is nothing random about
The isn't of
Lost door, hour
(from 'Her Lost
As with Masini's book, a sense of loss haunts this collection (a dead lover,
I think) but it never approaches either the self-conscious or the mawkish.
Instead, Bernhardt finds in words and language, with all their complexes of
patterns and relationships of sense and sound, a way, perhaps only partial
but a way nevertheless, of saying what it's like to be caught up in
everything from loss to exuberance, from pain to joy. And since the distance
between feeling bad and feeling good is sometimes a very long one and then
sometimes not there at all, the poems are bewildering in a good way. Never
mind the number of times you may flounder; it is equalled by the number of
times things make sense, and made all the more interesting and pleasurable by
the constant of Bernhardt's voice, which has charm and wit all over the
death of a beloved
has changed. My new work
traditional or epiphanic
in its use of
of my loved one's death).
Do your own
'There Is No Towards')
I'm not one to look for 'key poems' in books, but perhaps a key poem here is
'The Urge To Say', a pantoum (of the less-than-rigid variety: not all the
repeated lines are repeated exactly, but they're close, which is, of course,
modern) and it's here that we find the echolalia of the book's title, and its
Bennett has Tourette's,
echolalia and palilalia.
He hoots Babaloo
Mandel, Floyd Flake.
Phonic tics -
echolalia and palilalia:
the repeating of
single words, ends of sentences (yours, someone else's).
All these railings
along the staircase
The repeating of
single words, ends of sentences
is something to
hold on to.
Along the staircase
synapses of logic
Something to hold
Synapses of logic
I try to control my
Which aspects of
metabolism are controllable?
I try to control my
Then forget how to
It's possible to haul a bunch of things from this, among them the play of
'phonic tics' (can you hear the echo there of phonetics?), the different
meanings of 'railings', the necessity of finding 'something to hold on to'
amid the wonderfully nervy 'synapses of logic firefly', and the roles of
memory and association and control.
Not the least of Bernhardt's achievements in this book is to take the
well-worn strategies of disjunction and word-play and found phrases and the
lyricism and banalities of the everyday and make of them something eminently
readable and worth returning to.
© Martin Stannard, 2006