26 mar. 2004

Choose your weapon

Poet A writes like this:

"Half of my youth I watched the soldiers
And saw mechanic clerk and cook
Subsumed beneath a uniform.
Grey black and Khaki was their look
Whose tool and instrument were death."

Or like this,

"Impatient all the foggy day for night
You plunged into the bar eager to loot.
A self-defeating eagerness: you're light...."

"The fog drifts slowly down the hill
And as I mount gets thicker still..."

Poet B writes like this:

"Lank potato, darkening
cabbage, tattered raspberry
canes, but the flower beds
so crammed there is
no room for weeds."

Or like this:

"But there's something going on
in those twisted brown limbs,
it starts as a need
and it takes over, a need
to push..."

"You recognize it like
the smell of the sour chemical
that gets into the sweat
of some people from
birth onward."

B seems to have a sharper eye (and ear), and writes with more immediacy and power than A. Why the redundancy of "tool and instrument," for example? Why the Audenesque rhetoric? Is it because A is writing in meter and rhyme? No, there is no intrinsic reason why meter should make a poet less energetic or alert. There is no reason why writing in free verse should free a poet up in this way either. That's just where the chips fall in this case.

Poet A is British poet long a resident of the SF Bay area. So is poet B. In fact, both poet A and poet B are Thom Gunn. He is a very-good-to-excellent poet not matter what form he is writing in. His metrical poems are not bad, but his poetry gains something significant when he abandons meter and rhyme. Why? My hypothesis is that meter pushes some poets into a rhetorical mode that prevents them from saying what they really want and need to say. It doesn't have to be this way, that's just how it happens in many cases.

Sociobiological arguments have no sway here. You can talk all you want of how neo-formalist aesthetics are rooted in human biology, but then why aren't neo-formalist poems better than they are? The arrogance of a Timothy Steele, to talk about the "errors" of Eliot or Williams, is breathtaking. I say, look at the actual accomplishments of the poets. The proof is in the quality of the poetry.