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Why Poetry Fails: Robert Mezey's Collected Poems (1952-1999)
(Arkansas University Press, 2000, 208 pp. paper $22.00)
by Tim Scannell
On the road a single shoe,
Mainstream poets and critics fail their art because they cannot see the forest for the hedge. In 1934, Edmund Wilson adjudged the cause of poetry's 'death' to be the inevitable drift of literature from poetry to prose, asserting that Romanticism's lyric was 'too intense.' In 1988, Joseph Epstein said modern poets killed poetry when they fled the real world for institutions and created writing programs, thereby fouling their own nest. In 1991, Dana Gioia warned that poets were too narrow and needed to mix their product with music, dance, theater. No to all three assertions. Mainstreamers, poet and critic alike, fail because their minds are crowded with ideology and revisionism, their psyches slack with acedia and anomie--and because they refuse to forthrightly criticize their peers.
Obversely, 'alternate' and 'non-mainstream' and 'underground' writing flourishes because it does not drift toward any particular historical trend, flee to any institution or shore up its flagging 'act' with ersatz fusions of poetry-music, poetry-dance, poetry-theater (whereby the third is the most successful union). Most importantly and affirmatively, such writing thrives because it is teeming with upstart rabble rousers--as any real art should.
Robert Mezey (b. 1935, Philadelphia) is an academic, knee-jerk Liberal, and crony of other mainstreamers with multiple entries in Books in Print: Hollander (87 entries), Justice (28), Williams (48), Ferry (19). That he fails his art is manifest in too many of these 200+ poems selected from his nearly fifty years of publication .
The work does not lack for technical skill, it does not drift toward prose, but press any Mezey poem and it oozes ideology. The reader winces throughout the specious revisionist larding of "To The Americans":
. …deaf to others' pain, of worshipping
and bombed-out embassies, innocent
[the mother of a "nubile preteen reveling
(and her husband knows: he was the go-between!)
Now, my understanding, one commonly shared, is that those bastions of Liberalism – Hollywood/Academe – are and have traditionally been the asylums of sexual promiscuity in LBJ's one-time Great Society (remember JFK/LBJ?). We know from recorded historical fact that Africans enslaved other Africans. Hardly "deaf to others' pain," Americans fund scores of thousands of volunteer relief organizations which provide aid to those in need.**
Studied humanism is no bar to Mezey's de rigueur disdain for the efforts of other poet-practitioners in "To My Friends in the Art":
Flyweight champions, may you live
No, this ivory turret pontificator (B. A., U. of Iowa; teaching jobs: Fresno State, Franklin & Marshall, U. of Utah, Pomona College) would not stoop to communion with 'alternate' writers (xeroxed zine/broadside, self-published/stapled chapbook), who present at cafés, bars or pizza houses. This professor emeritus is borne aloft over such goings-on by a university press! (Um...Arkansas-Fayetteville.)
Mezey writes effectively, but irresponsibly. In "The Wandering Jew," a 30-quatrain narration, he asks for reader empathy for his lapsed faith, re-embraced when he is haunted by Holocaust imagery:
. . . a dream of death
Yet his anomie admits no such reverence for the faiths of others. A segment from "Prose and Cons" evinces his scorn:
Our farther, whose art is heavy,
This is hardly the daily recitation of synagogue kaddish. Add to that a couplet from a 25-page section of couplets which are strikingly uneven in quality: "The face of Jesus, one side of a flowered bedspread, / False teeth drowning in a glass of water." So much for religious tolerance--of Christians. But let's see, here's Mezey on Mormons:
Dwarfed by a building that would have delighted Mussolini,
It's the Angel Moroni, resplendent in gold drag,
The radio says make Jesus your business partner
So much for liberal education--and emeritus.
Mainstream critics, by any measure of fairness, should be lambasting such bigotry and inexcusable malice. So what do they say?
Donald Justice (BIP tally: 28), to whom the first poem in the collection is dedicated, praises Mezey's poems as "absolute classics of calm and beauty." John Hollander (BIP tally: 87) credits Mezey with "an unyielding poetic integrity that is itself like a beacon against a darkening literary horizon." Really. Just how specifically does such offal rise to the challenge of Mnemosyne and her nine daughters, the Musae?
There are good poems--ekphrasia of a print by Edward Hopper; the survival of just-born Thomas Hardy, a fine poem, "Night on Clinton," about being on the street, drunk, after a favorite bar closes--but these couple of dozen efforts are overwhelmed by scores of poems of insensate, shallow hatred. Consider this excerpt from "Eurocentric Rag":
I make a lot of money and have a perfect tan;
I've conquered everybody from Peru to Hindistan
And so on, Mezey mouths the procrustean ideology of the lunatic Left. Where are the mainstream poet-pals who should be loudly denouncing this PC trash?
Granted, many of these poems are inoffensive, the watery gruel of the academic's acedia and anomie.
The rain, the mountains, the weeds, and the cool light
Surrounded by eyes and tongues,
Small pity that.
For Mezey, life is such a bore, such a chore, that a reader like me, dazzled by everything in the world, can work up little empathy for his personal bathos. It is not historical change, institutions, or narrow academe which 'kills' poetry. If poetry suffers, it is because Mezey's brethren (the authors or editors of the 182 titles tallied above) shirk their obvious duty to give a benighted fellow what he's begging for : a good slap upside the head.
Let there be light
Jesus. 'You have said it.' Not recommended.
(Tim Scannell taught literature for twenty years, but left academia to become an independent reviewer and essayist. He writes often for the magazine and lives in Washington State.)
*Favorite lines of Mezey's which were not used for a public plaza poet's walk in Los Angeles. The four closing lines were. (See http://www.usc.edu/isd/archives/la/pubart/Downtown/Poetswalk/pigeons.html.)
** Total American-source donations to UNICEF, the United Nations children's relief organization, recently exceeded one billion dollars.--Ed.
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Reviews in Brief:
Alan Catlin's Stop Making Sense
March Street, 2000, 38 pp. $6
(3413 Wilshire Dr, Greensboro, NC 27408)
Alan Catlin is a veteran of forty books. The dream of every poet must surely be to create the perfect lyric, an electrifying convergence of 'music' and poetic 'structure' which shows an essential reality of being alive, its ferreting for meaning, its poignant yearning for substance, its obsession for wholeness amid the vicissitudes of living. More than half of the 25 lyrics in Stop Making Sense hit those targets squarely. In a review written last year, I praised the long, single poem by Todd Moore called Working on My Duende (100 pages, 3800 lines of stream-of-consciousness; Kings Estate Press, 1999). Moore's poem was a narrative with many lyrical motifs; Catlin's shorter poems are lyrics with narrative interconnections.
Interwoven in these poems is the struggle between silence and sound: How may the poet fend off the one to produce an authentic other? The musical nature of poem titles foreshadows the task: poems built round performers like Kees, Cohen, Holiday and Gould, composers like Mahler, Beethoven and Verdi; poets like Graves and Stevens.
Those colors she is seeing beyond the score
In "Billie Holiday Recording Studio 1959," the scrutinizer of the photo infers--discerns--the vocalist's disappearing voice (Billie's essence).
lines under each eye,
Yet, is it merely time--life lived--which could possibly strangle the voice to silence?
No. Alan Catlin's driven and intense persona is after a far bigger fish: the question of identity subsuming time. In one of several poems on the reclusive life of Glen Gould, the poet discounts Glen's
blank bars on the noteless scoring
But where, then, might Gould's instrumental voice have been? In a dozen lines of lyrical abandon, Catlin says,
Perhaps, conducting the trees and the cows
These are, indeed, the correct kind of guesses, for in the next poem, "Stagefright," Gould gives away all his music before a performance…
a half note for the deaf mutes, quarters
With a fine skill (though I must say that these poems required better editing), the poet brings us to the crux of sound and silence, inasmuch as the performer displaying his artistry is
the solitary interloper to this dreaded
The answer, of course, is to know whether these "impurities" and "elements" are genuine impediments to the "inviolate" artist (instrument, poem, song), or mere existential angst (amenable--yielding--to choice).
With an imaginative and varied palette, Catlin explores diminution, extinction of voice, from the humorous "Spalding's White Stockings Begin Hurling Baseballs at the Great Pyramid, Much to the Annoyance of Their Egyptian Guides Feb 9, 1889" ("feckless youths, / heedless to the message of time…"); to a TV-muted orchestral performance: "An Explanation Offered to an Extraterrestrial of Bernstein Conducting Beethoven's Ninth Symphony on Public Television with the Sound Turned Off" ("the shaman's stick [baton] conveys / the gift of magic. He is teaching the tribes [orchestra sections] / the secret of speech"). I cite two of these clever titles--met throughout the chapbook--because they belie the extremely elegiac tone/voice encountered in each poetic text. There is the simple sorrow of what has passed, as in "Please Don't Shoot the Piano Player (He's Doing the Best He Can)":
. …not so much
And in "Robert Graves Listens to a Day in the Life," the reader comes with the poet to the edge of the Abyss, the Node of existential despair:
Reading on the seashore in the sun
And so we--poet's persona, attentive reader--converge at the famous (infamous?) Nausea, the penultimate existential step preceding Authenticity, the crux of being qua being which demands choice--yes or no (BEWARE: choosing neither is also a choice). The reader is not "inviolate in his isolation" inasmuch as he has read the poem--artifact and scrap ('impurity/element') from the prosaic and mundane world. He encounters and comprehends--and so survives. Yet the poet, too, survives, for his making of the poem necessarily came before any subsequent participant's reading and understanding (poetry is NOT a spectator sport). Ergo, existential doubt is triumphed over by both reader and poet. Ironically, Alan Catlin's Stop Making Sense is wonderfully transparent, offering tough, satisfying creations of modulated poetic struggle. Highly recommended.
(Tim Scannell is a prolific, independent reviewer. He lives in Washington State.)
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Ralph Dranow's Sunday Ritual
Liquid Paper, 32 pp. $4
POB 4973, Austin, TX 78765
The best long poem read in the past decade (3500 lines) is Todd Moore's Working on my Duende, the best lyrics, those twenty-five in Alan Catlin's Stop Making Sense. The best poems I will ever read about the aura and patrons of the bookstore--and I see the eternal horizon--are these by Ralph Dranow!
Each of his twenty-five poems is a delightfully imaged, simple narrative: who enters, what the buyers want, and why they leave; yet within this plain structure is the universe of 'bookshop browsers' we have all met, but have not ever, ever had the words or insight to describe as perfectly, touchingly, as this poet.
She studies the three-for-a-dollar rack,
The reader, thereafter, relishes her life's story, books read, brother's illness, her pasta diet and freely-given opinions of this author, that customer's dress. It is an amazement to comprehend this nice woman's entire life--in only thirty-four lines!
The character in "What a Friend I Have in Jesus": "has a glass eye, / A missing front tooth / And an electric smile." He sings of Jesus outside the shop, and at evening's end "pours coins from / His sweat-stained handkerchief / Onto the bookstore counter" (to exchange for paper money). One night, two dollars short to pay for his rented room, the bookstore clerk pushes the extra across the counter--never to see him again:
Slowly disappointment whispers through me.
The skill of selecting the one illuminating image, nuance of bodily motion/emotion are all astonishing in this fine poet.
"Do you have anything on cunnilingus?"
In the next forty lines, he strains for clear-headed response--with no result:
…. she ambles out the door.
But hilariously too late for him to demonstrate the suave, sophisticated worldliness desired.
We meet a woman buying three used mysteries every Sunday, who will snap sharply if not provided with both bag and receipt; a shoplifter, who must have a book on Atlantis and winds an excuse so convoluted that we accept the clerk's forgiveness of the crime; a cook from the greasy spoon across the street, who is wide-eyed about every book touched, yet never buys one; and, finally, the disheveled, begrimed, man whose "eyes are arrogant, bloodshot," and who demands a copy of Dostoevsky's The Possessed.
Sunday Ritual is the deserving winner of the 2000 Nerve Cowboy Chapbook Contest. I hope it speeds through a half-dozen reprintings. Its poetry merits a wide readership--and a Pushcart nomination. Highly recommended.
(Tim Scannell is a prolific, independent reviewer. He lives in Washington State.)