Monday, August 24, 2009

Poetry: Avant or SOQ

I follow Ron Silliman's blog, which is hardly news. Many people do. I like getting the poetry skinny from someone who poetry diametrically opposes my own work.Very often, his comment stream fills with relatively polite invective discussing the SOQ stranglehold on the poetry scene, or advocating for what seem to me to be various coteries of oddballs and nearly non-poets. I like that. I'd do the same thing, if I had a coterie, and I like many of the avant-garde poets I first discovered through his blog.

The thing is, despite some discussion, there seems to be no room in his scheme for a third way, for poets like me who are influenced equally by the School of Quietude and the avant-garde. Are there poets who admit to funneling their influences straight through the middle? If I had to name my influences right now, I'd name Galway Kinnell and James Wright and Kim Addonizio on one side, and Paul Blackburn,Ted Berrigan, and Allen Ginsberg on the other. I don't know what that says about me, but even the sonnet cycle I wrote under the Berrigan influence doesn't seem avant-garde, nor does any of my other work, so I'd have a difficult time placing myself among the poles. Which brings me to the point: Silliman's comments today on Jason Shinder.

I know Shinder's work--and if asked, would say I liked it--only because of a single poem that I read first in a textbook or something---sorry, can't remember where--before it had been published in Ploughshares, in their Spring 2007 issue. Today, Silliman finds himself affected by Shinder's last poems, written, apparently, as Shinder slowly died of cancer. What Silliman posts from this last book seem skilled but ordinary stripped-down poems of a kind and nature you can see anytime in various journals. Strictly SOQ, as Silliman defines it. But, because Shinder had been Allen Ginsberg's assistant, some avant-garde leeway apparently allows him to be praised, for these perfectly ordinary poems. I've read Shinder's books. They all consist of pretty ordinary-to-good poems. In other words, I'd be grateful to eventually publish the number of books Shinder did, but those books are probably not going to change anyone's poetic life. He's one among thousands, really. Except for that one thing, one poem, that I read long ago. It hit me hard. I repost it here for general edification. The poem didn't change my life exactly, but I'll always remember it.

From Ploughshares, Spring 2007:

Hospital, by Jason Shinder

While the machine sucks the black suds

from my mother’s blood and then sends it back
stinking clean into the pistol-tube nailed down

into her chest, I climb out of my shoes and slip

a cotton swab of water between her teeth,
her dentures sliding off the back porch

of her mouth. Nobody knows, never knows,

how she has to pee, wrapped in a diaper.
But can’t. The yellow eggs she ate one hour ago

already the shit in her bowels. And lonely,

head-hanging-from-the-balcony-of-her-body lonely,
darkest-passage-from-the-hairless-vagina lonely.

But brave. But lonely. Because I did not stay all night.

Because I won’t. Because I’m going to pull out
the one bone that hurts her the most and break the back

of every word I ever said to her. The world is evil, Mother,

and I am, too.

This is a great poem, for me, mostly because of its last four lines. What seems a bit too detailed and precise in the previous lines, a kind of quivery ick, suddenly comes into hard focus. Rescued from its sentiment, though, this poem would be nothing, and those late poems of Shinder's seem bereft even of poetic intent. How does one go from praising those lines Silliman quoted, to these much much better ones? And how do we judge the SOQ-Avant tension when the one side, the bloggiest of the blog-powerful avants, chooses the clearly inferior poems to champion?

More importantly, how does a guy like me find his intellectual way among people like this? I mean, Jesus.

Easy answer: I don't. I keep on reading and writing, and making up my own damned mind, growing better informed along the way.

3 comments:

  1. A hard and honest poem, Rusty. Thank you for alerting me to it.

    (I actually typed 'altering', which may not have been a mistake...)

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  2. The ineffable "quivery ick"--painfully beautiful. Thanks for this.

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  3. Hi Charles and Paul--thanks for reading.

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