Deflated Ego 1: Ira Lightman


Duetcetera
, Ira Lightman (82pp, 8.95, Shearsman)


I nearly stopped before I began. I did not want to read the book for itself, I just wasn't interested enough. I had just been startled to find something humdrum with a little more fizz to it than normal. I was mildly curious initially at the look of the collages, of poems, translations, and found poems - for example, even from the kids' programme LazyTown.  A line of dialogue from the pantomime villain Robbie Rotten "HOW / can I be bad / when / she / says / some / thing / good" is set against a kind of Pythonesque comedy riff "SHE SHOULD allegory / synonym at him,  /  he allegory / metaphor from her; / should her re-allegory / synonym from him / re-allegory / metaphor at her". I did know some of the poets, and some of the poems, translated, and that's what hooked me. I had a sense of testing what I thought was, say, Baudelaire or Mallarme's style, against Lightman's translations where I didn't know the original.

Lightman dabbles in mockery, self-deprecation, parody of all and sundry. He can say something, then not have any further discussion, and yet there is the hope for a wake of charm. He is at least prepared to write for people who may never have seen a poem and may never be expected to read or hear another poem.

There are wonderful moments where, if you know Lightman, you do momentarily think of him as the author of some passages that (daringly) push him a little further (working in a new way) to more literariness or more lyricism than he previously overtly showed. When his work billows out a space, held open sometimes as tensely as the big tent of which Tony Blair used to speak, sometimes with eight or ten basic pegs and lines of basic force yet billowly to wallow in nonetheless.

     REPUBLICAN                                          DEMOCRAT
           unloved                 the                     unhated
               hate                                           love
     precipitating                world's                  cruising
                 the                                          within
             anchor               ending                   dry
               yank                                          dock.

There are various attempts at the spiritual, love in the spiritual sense as much as in any other. And there is worry over sin. How does one recognize sin in one's own expression, for example bluff jokey racist slang like "yank", including and especially in one's most pious self-expression? I want to ask, for many, what a Christian does, even when it is not ostensibly in prayer, with the will to mischief sabotaging what must be felt, and owned full-throated in the presence of God, in earnest. The will to mischief can only make it harder to speak in earnest, but then what of Christ's injunction (at one specific point in the Gospels, not necessarily as a mode for talking to one kind or category of audience) not to cast pearls among swine? ??Lightman may be modelling an unspoken tendency, an unspoken battle with parody, among the would-be pious. For them his work may be then a (colourful) sermon in which he admits to something uncomfortable, that strikes a chord, so that we marshal our forces the stronger against it. If one feels moved to find it so, this raises many questions of what he seems to be doing and what he is doing. And what about when out of church bounds? Il n'y'a pas hors-eglise?

It says on the blurb that Lightman makes Public Art? Is Duetcetera
Public Art, visual poetry? Jeffrey Side has proposed that a poem should produce a kind of simultaneous performance of itself in the reader, so that there is overload and surplus but also a feeling of pace and direction, of voice. How can a visual poem have that kind of direction and pace? Its words are often simple (there's a whole school of minimalist concrete poem that Marjorie Perloff has implied fears the sentence) and at an angle, or in a specially chosen font (or fonts). If the whole book is in one font, all at the same point size, and on the one level, is it still visual poetry? Bringing two voices together, as Lightman has often done making videos of two poets reading his poems (or new double column poems made by both poets), seems to hint at the energy of two voices implied in every visual bringing together of poems. Each poet takes a deliberate through composed tone to their own column, yet brings alive the moment by moment of each word to make synchronicity work. They don't cling to each other, but more to themselves, with qualifications, moments of noticing each other. Like children hard to bring out of their world. Is the child's enviable world of presentness the one made by interaction with others, only in glimpses?

Doesn't this render a strange new historical moment for the Wordsworthian idea that poetry speaks to the child in us? School discussions of poetry make a mockery of Wordsworthian innocence at its finest. They actually inhibit it. Yet in a rare classroom, among all and not least one of the generic classrooms, a Wordsworth poem might get an outing, even a hearing. An early Prynne poem, where Prynne is at is his most Wordsworthian, might. I've personally taught the same workshop on writing mesostic poetry in many schools, and it's often gone the same. The form, like the acrostic but with greater flexibility, encourages one to snatch, chance-like, at expressions to incorporate into the poem ? the plainer but also the gawkier the better. The kind of poetry this encourages young people to write is a great deal better than the poetry of finding similes, the dull syntax and the preponderance of the word 'like' in young people's poetry. The language style rule is "keep it plain", and the form rule, "make it fit a pattern". A self-indulgent longwindedness, pace Henry James, might be the adult form of keeping it plain, or have within it a plain or plangent rhythm. If it weren't for two swear words on page p61, this might be a good kid's poetry book, along exactly the challenging lines indicated in the sequence that ends the book.

The sequence focusses on a child's imagined experience of art (with vanity enough, of one of Lightman's performances, no less). The lefthand columns in these closing pages are all written as if by a young school-age child: "Mrs Pubbus / used to tell me which poems / she thought were good or bad / and sometimes too grown-up, / I thought / she really / feared / poems / she did and did not / talk / about badly read outloud". This voice indicates both a simple clarity about grown-ups, that the teacher "feared / poems" of all sorts, but also that the teacher (the adult other, with special rules for interaction with children) had an openness to working through that fear if only the poems weren't "badly read". If they were well read outloud - and which poems ever are? - she was perhaps open to talking about all, but maybe not talking "outloud". This indicates a child's view, to read adults like a book, feel adults' fear (all the time) and yet to know respect and hope (when at primary school age) for the moment. Teachers are so rarely fully hardened, or hard-hearted, when teaching at primary school.

When these lines come together with a sometimes waffly general statement of poetics by Lightman in the right hand column (who seems as I say to be the Daddy named in the left hand columns), we get further glosses of possibility, of hope in the moment borne on general waves of dismissive vengeful anger and responding to fear:

                        Definitely No.   I'd offer something for
                           Mrs Pubbus   the other to hear,
     used to tell me which poems   not deflate, but
   she thought were good or bad   trouble
    and sometimes too grown-up,  to come up with an exploitative
                             I thought   counterpoint
                              she really   had the potential to feel
                                  feared   good art in the draft
                                  poems   technically, with double
                 she did and did not   probe, even
                                     talk   us
         about badly read outloud   Escher scales upon B&W.

Lightman has written a few online reviews of other people's poetry. Poet-reviewers often have a habit of coming up with formulations, when describing other people's work, that are all too ready to cut and paste into a review of their own work. Sometimes this is vanity, sometimes the very pasted quote ricochets about, neither applying fully to the reviewed work or the reviewer's own work. It would be interesting to look at Lightman's review of Bruce Smith and David Antin in this light, especially since Bruce Smith's work is ostensibly in a double-column or duet form and Lightman doesn't seem to rate its achievement but only its general habits of language style, which would apply if the columns were single column poems or prose. Certainly, I imagine, Lightman would dislike having the whole formal enterprise of the book written off quite so smartly as Lightman writes off Smith's. On a conscious level, at least. Such is the superficiality of reviewing and response to it. Should the reviewer and the reviewed be talking much, convivially much, after the publication of the review? Perhaps there is deferral after an insistent point is made, at least between the counterpoint selves of the debatees.

     Ira Lightman 2009