Whose broken window is a cry of art

I always feel a little badly for Gwendolyn Brooks. Like many readers, for years all I knew of her work was “We Real Cool,” the short striking poem that gets anthologized all over the place, and that fits–for careless or superficial readers–a little too neatly into racist tropes of African American cultural dysfunction.

Don’t get me wrong–I like the poem, I think it’s got a lot going on, formally as well as in what it has to say. More so, in fact, than at first meets the eye. It’s just that it’s almost too accessible, and so invites quick dismissal. And, like any over-anthologized piece, it ends up being what this deep and multifaceted author is reduced to.

Then I started reading some of her other work, and discovered how much broader and deeper her range is than any one poem can illustrate. But one poem that grabbed me and wouldn’t let go was “Boy Breaking Glass.” It’s a gnarly poem–challenging, complex, rich in meaning and technique–and I found I had to write about it, to understand why I found it so compelling. I worked at it and let it sit and then worked at it some more, but was never satisfied. Finally I decided just to post what I had, even so. The recent events in Baltimore just make it all the more appropriate.

Here’s what I came up with.

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Fantasy as constraint

I’ve been listening to an audiobook version of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, an entertaining fantasy set in early nineteenth-century England, and enjoying how the book thinks about magic, in two different ways. First, simply the variety of the magical inventions; second, the way it integrates the essentially unbelievable aspects of the story—the magic—into what otherwise presents itself as a realistic situation, complete with pseudo-scholarly footnotes about the magical texts and personalities. It’s historical fiction, with recognizable figures (e.g. the Duke of Wellington, King George) and situations (the war with France), but it blends these conventions with a matter-of-fact presumption of the existence of magic, so that the characters going about their daily lives in London or at war in Spain take it for granted that magic and magicians are real. The book pulls this off quite well, and part of the pleasure of reading is the amusement in recognizing how it renders such implausible material as if it were completely ordinary.

It struck me this morning, as I was chuckling over it again, that in effect what I’m admiring is how the book sets itself a certain arbitrary constraint—presume the existence of magic—and then finds ways to accommodate that constraint while telling a persuasive story. Continue reading

Another fine poem by Charles Hartman

Here’s another fine poem by Charles Hartman, from his 1995 collection Glass Enclosure.

Against the Log, the Seed

Against the log, the seed.
Against the public statue, rain
and running fame. Against the deed
the clouds of pain.

Against the hunkered will,
the traffic’s frantic pantomime;
however still we sit, we’re still
hurtling through time.

The painting of a spray
of pansies moves as much as they;
so that we see the color stay,
light storms away.

This poem grabbed me when I first read it, so much so that I had to keep re-reading and thinking about it: enjoying what I liked, puzzling over what I didn’t fully understand (often the same as what I liked), analyzing technical qualities I only intuited at first, going over it again for the sheer pleasure of it all. What follows is my attempt to spell out in writing what I found so compelling about it. The nice thing is that, even after all the analysis, the poem retains its ability to please and surprise and invite reflection. Continue reading

Men die every day: Poetry and value

This is a response to a negative review of Garrison Keillor’s Good Poems by August Kleinzahler, first published in Poetry April 2004, which I happened across while browsing the Poetry Foundation website.

I’ll leave Garrison Keillor for others to dissect. I’d rather talk about William Carlos Williams. Kleinzahler quotes the well known passage from “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower” that ends,

It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.

Kleinzahler takes issue with the idea, writing, “A pretty sentiment, to be sure, but simply untrue, as anyone who has been to the supermarket or ballpark recently will concede. Ninety percent of adult Americans can pass through this life tolerably well, if not content, … without having a poem read to them by Garrison Keillor or anyone else.” Continue reading

Cubist Grammar and the Ambiguity of Pi: Charles Hartman’s “Tambourine”

One spring evening many years ago I stood in the balcony in a bar in Seattle’s Pioneer Square, waiting for the next act in the Seattle Improvised Music Festival to begin. Two percussionists laid brass gamelan keys, blocks of wood, glass bottles, a metal sheet and assorted other objects on the floor next to an antique washing machine. This was a large enamel tub with a spindle in the center driven by an electric motor. Jutting out from the top of the spindle was a short wooden arm, to the end of which a piece of string was attached, and at the end of the string was a small hard rubber ball. As the spindle turned the arm the string yanked the ball around, and the ball bounced against the deeply resonant enamel walls of the tub. The turning of the spindle and the shape of the tub gave the sound its regularity, its pattern, while the play of the string and the bounciness of the ball gave it its random quality. It was never quite clear from moment to moment if the machine would keep the beat or change it, but it always seemed to return to some fundamental ur-rhythm, not an actual rhythm but a potential for many rhythms. The musicians improvised with this lunatic metronome, using mallets on the things they had laid out next to it. The biggest challenge they faced was not to fall into any set rhythm, but instead to respect the irregularities of their guiding instrument—to listen carefully, not to let their playing become stereotyped, but constantly to hover around the edges of rhythm, maintaining the tension between the ear’s desire for pattern and the arbitrary fluctuations of the apparatus. It was one of the most lucid demonstrations I have ever witnessed of that basic tension in all art, between the desire for order and the demands of the contingent, whether in the world at large or in the materiality of its medium.
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