Saturday, April 4, 2009

Chronic, by D.A. Powell, and Live or Die, by Anne Sexton

I blush to take a quote from Harold Bloom, but in his preface to The Anxiety of Influence, he flourishes a typically "sublime" Wilde quip: "All bad poetry is sincere." Bloom goes on to say, "Doubtless it would be wrong to say that all great poetry is insincere, but of course almost all of it necessarily tells lies, fictions essential to literary art."

I wonder where the "almost" in "almost all" comes from; he nixed Plath, Sexton and Snodgrass from his canon, so I can't imagine his qualification has anything to do with confessional poetry. But what poetry, then, does not lie to Harold Bloom?

This may be an exceedingly silly question, and to be honest, I really don't care, but I think the question of what value there is in Wilde's flip judgment is sort of interesting, particularly in the context of confessional poets (like Sexton) and poets who often get labeled "post-confessional" (like Powell).

The question of sincerity is difficult to consider outside of or apart from the confessional genre; although there has been some excellent work (James Longenbach, Dan Chiasson) bridging the confessional attention to the subject with the modernist attention to form, it's still difficult to see the emergence of confessional poetry as anything other than a colossal change in the way poetry was received. Even more undeniable is that confessional poetry marked a sea change in the way amateur poetry would be written; if all bad poetry is sincere, bad poetry was never so bad as after Life Studies, Heart's Needle, and Ariel were published.

But one of the things you realize when you read a poet like Sexton next to a poet like Powell (who, let me just say again, is absolutely one of the best American poets writing today) is that characterizing a poet as "sincere" or "insincere" is really a way of abstracting them from the poems themselves; sincerity is really not about what a poem hides from us, but what a poet hides from her poem. In a poem like Sexton's "Menstruation at Forty" (which is one of the best, I think, in Live or Die—all of the poems about her children are completely excellent), not much is hidden from the poem, but at least a little is masked with imagery or metaphor.

Part of the problem with dealing with poets whom we can't outright call sincere, poets who do seem to hide maybe a little something from their poems, is that even the non-pejorative antonyms of "sincere" are all so deficient: "coy" may describe a poet like Powell satisfactorily to some of his readers, as his wit can seem elusive and playful, but it in no way prepares the reader to do anything with the poem other than register those elements which fulfill that coyness: flippant puns, light-hearted pop-cultural allusions, knowingly clever formal stylings (e.g., there is a pull-out extra-large page at the center of the book: on one side is a poem called "Cinemascope," on the other, "Centerfold"). Where do you really get with a "coy" poem? At least with a poem you assume to be sincere, you tend to look at the architecture of the poem either to validate that sincerity or to undermine/deconstruct it. "Sincerity" presumes some depth, which the reader is obliged to fathom at least tentatively.

Chronic, Powell's fourth book, brings this problem to a calm but rolling boil. His previous books have excelled at creating voices, situations, formulas, and styles which keep the reader constantly on the move, the poet ever cleverer by half-a-step or more, yet always close enough to make a moving intimacy felt. The emotional force of Powell's poems was transmitted less by touch than by proximity. They have been "coy," if you want to call them that, but their playfulness was hardly superficial.

Or rather, the poems resisted the idea of "superficiality," of "depth," of "layers" of meaning: the surface didn't hide depths because the vertical wasn't the primary axis of meaning. In his first book, Tea, Powell wrote (almost?) entirely in very long lines: the book itself was bound oddly to emphasize this horizontality. The extra-long line (which you can read about here in a very good interview) was not just a formal trick: even Powell's regular-sized lines (in Lunch and Cocktails) seem to grow and move and mean across the page as much or more than down it.

The title of this new collection is, then, a perfect theme for this horizontal orientation: the chronic diseases of our planet and our bodies, our minds and our societies are incurable, persistent, and so very deadly because they exist horizontally, across our days. We rarely reach a point of separation, or a point of depth; intensities ebb and flow, but the continuity of our condition is that condition's primary experience.

But Powell has also added an element to this collection that was, if not absent, certainly less notable in his previous books: the pastoral tradition, that genre that specializes in moments frozen in ideality, cuts down into this chronic ongoingness, asserting that the verticality of memory's depths and the earth's depths and heights can still be meaningful bulwarks against the chronic.

There are quite a few poems from Powell's new collection up at Poetry magazine: I highly recommend them, and I think they illustrate this dynamic well, particularly "continental divide." Powell's use of the pastoral is not so much a way of preserving an idealized former state of existence, and it is certainly not a way of creating an idyllic alternative existence, but is rather a way of securing the ability to resist the chronic, to acknowledge, as he says in one poem, that "even the business of dying must be set aside occasionally."

Chronic is not a lament for a time when death was un-thought of, unacknowledged, unheeded. The epigraph of the collection is from Vergil's ninth Eclogue: "Time robs us of all, even of memory: oft as a boy I recall that with song I would lay the long summer days to rest. Now I have forgotten all my songs." This is from the Fairclough translation, which (as you can see) is in prose (grumble), but here's the Latin:

Omnia fert aetas, animum quoque. Saepe ego longos

cantando puerum memini me condere soles.
Nunc oblita mihi tot carmina…

The use of aetas instead of tempus (which one might expect from the translation) is important: tempus (time) is an impersonal force, whereas aetas (age or, even more loosely, aging) here bears a more personal resonance; "memory" is also a pretty bad choice for animum (a better translation has "wit," which in its 18th or 19th C. meaning would be fairly good, I think); and "forgotten" also seems to be a slight miss for oblita—"forgotten" is too careless, I feel, too casual—"Oops! I guess I can't remember. My memory's not what it used to be."

I can't say for sure that Powell is, like me, dissatisfied with Fairclough's translation—he did pick it instead of others, I suppose—and that the meaning he intended is closer to what I take to be the Latin. But in reading his poetry, particularly the poems that have most to do with the past (the aforementioned "continental divide" and the wonderful "meditating upon the meaning of the line 'clams on the halfshell and rollerskates' in the song "good times" by chic"), the sense is not "I was young, and now I'm older, and I've forgotten so much of the past," but that there is a process of aging, a sort of chronic death, which we can more or less thwart for a moment, not by nostalgic reverie, but by acknowledging the failure of aging to close out the possibilities we saw (or failed to see) in the past:

…it's still 1980 somewhere, some corner of your dark apartment
where the mystery of the lyric hasn't faded. and love is in the chorus waiting to be born

is how the "chic" poem ends. It is very difficult not to read such a poem as nostalgia, and not to read some of Powell's other poems (the awesome, Jeffers-like "Republic," for instance) as straight pastoral, dipped in the honey of idyllic sunlight, but a little bitter now that the sun has faded. But I think there is a different, more dynamic relationship to the past than nostalgia, and a more complex idea of what can be retrieved—it is something much more than memory.

To bring things back to the beginning of this post, pastoral has long had a vexed relationship to sincerity: Empson defined it as literature that is "about" the people, but not "by" or "for" them. Raymond Williams's The City and the Country is, among other things, a demonstration of the massive insincerity of most pastoral literature on precisely this score. Yet I think that, like his previous work, Powell has attempted to reconfigure the poet's relationship to sincerity—to recalibrate those ratios of "about" and "by" and "for." The pastorals of this book are an enormous step forward in that recalibration, offering a nearly perfect workspace for a poet who gets so much meaning and imagination into a single line; the pastoral, one could say, has transformed these lines into horizons.

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