2 may. 2007

I read Harmatan this evening. It's an interresting book written in Nigeria in 1966-67 with lots of sharply observed detail. There is some overwriting, like section 49 "Foliage burgeoning in summer rain." It would be easy to isolate passages of good or indifferent writing, nothing really bad. If I had to choose my favorite it would be poem 48, the penultimate section of the book:

Somewhere the rivers are slowing down,
are less and less deep every year
and will soon be shallow enough to lay on
and let the water pour over you as you sleep;
the birds don't panic at dawn
and walk more than they fly; the ocean
sends one less wave ashore every day,
one more thought of sleep.
Fine dust above the goat paths
suspended in the sunlight
then drifting upward
as though the ground were raining on the sky.
The network of goat paths lining the ridges
and mounds which were once the city wall of Kano.
Sunlight, the memory of it, entering
the arid space of a demolished building in New York.
Dreamy movements of light and dust.
A slow shadow revolving at the center
of flattened miles,
one ant dancing with a dead ant in the sand.

The conceits are clever without being too clever: A river so dry you could sleep in it without fear. The ground raining on the sky. Birds weighted down by a general mood of slowness so that they prefer to walk rather than fly. Mounds that were once a city wall. The energy of an ocean dissipating so that is sends one less wave each day to the shore. The last line is beautiful too! Everything is communicated indirectly, but without obscurity. There is nothing labored about the writing itself, no word or phrase that sounds forced or out of place.

Violi's not a poet I know at all well. This book was published 30 years ago and I had never heard of it. I am its first owner (of this particular copy I mean) for all I can see. The copy is pristine, odorless, with no names of previous owners in it. Published by Sun in 1977, in a series that included Ponge, Padgett, Knott, Towle, Lopate. Roussel, Economou, Ely. Whenever I see a book published by Sun in the 70s, I pick it up.


Could you imagine a poem like this being "workshopped," re-crafted into something better? I'm not saying that it's perfect, but that a few imperfections here and there make it breathe all the more. The line "the arid space of a demolished building of New York," for example, does not sound quite as elegant as the surrounding lines (possibly). Yet by correcting the "worst" line you might destroy the entire poem. The whole idea of having a workshop in which inexpert writers criticize each others' work seems profoundly stupid to me. Even a very good poet might ruin someone else's poem with a misplaced suggestion, so wouldn't even worse writers give even worse advice?

4 comentarios:

Jordan dijo...

Thanks for airing out the poem -- great reading.

Workshops are round robin tourneys disguised as group therapy.

JforJames dijo...

On the positive side, it's nice to hear what other intelligent people think about your poem. Whether you take their comments to heart or with a grain of salt, is another matter. The workshop is not necessarily about correction.

You comment about that particular line made me think of Lu Ji:
The best line is a towering crag.
It won't be woven into an ordinary song.
The mind can't find a match for it
but casts about, unwilling to give up.

(The Act of Writing, translated by Tony Barnstone)

Jonathan dijo...

Usually they aren't intelligent. Even being intelligent doesn't mean they know anything about poetry. Even if they know something, doesn't mean they are the right person to tell you something useful.

Jordan dijo...

I like hearing what a wide audience of other intelligent people have to say about a poem when I'm ready, which is to say, after it's published.

Workshopping is not about the work -- how could it be? "Too many cooks" etc.