Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Poetics of Echo-Location: Goldbarth and Prufer

One of my usual gripes about American poetry takes the form of ill-humored grumbling about the prevalence of two ennervating traditions: the self-obsessed post-confessional navel-gaving of what Charles Altieri calls the Scenic Mode (the stuff of many an MFA workshop), on the one hand; and the indeterminate poetry of a watered-down old-school experiementalism of what Ron Silliman calls the Post-Avant, on the other (also the stuff of many an MFA workshop nowadays). One of my standard coffeehouse complaints about these kinds of poetry has been their inadequacy as ways of dealing with the self. Michael Anania nailed it, I think, when he said that "a great deal of contemporary poetry struggles between the conventionally Romantic, forever warm first-person singular and the somewhat shop-worn, post-modern inter-textual no-person plural." But wait! Signs of life appear on the horizon! Two new books, Kevin Prufer's Fallen from a Chariot and Albert Goldbarth's Budget Travel Through Space and Time arrived in my mailbox yesterday, and already I'm excited about the way the two poets treat the self. For them, the self is neither the isolated navel-gazer of the scenic mode nor the dissolved, death-of-the-author entity of the post-avant. Both poets find ways of seeing the self in relation to the history that conditions and underwrites it. They look to the long ago and the far away as ways of understanding the nature of the personal and the near-at-hand. In a way, what they're on to is a poetics of echo-location.

For example, consider the risky and apparently unpromising beginning of one of Goldbarth's poems:

I was like a taster that the kings use;
if the grapes are fatal, the taster dies.
And so all of my male friends my age
were almost as anxious waiting
for the report on my prostate biopsy
as I was.

This does not seem, at first glance, to bode well. It has the look of that post-Robert Lowell, personal stuff, without the grand agonies that gave Lowell power, and without the sense of liberation from musty, New-Critical, highly-wrought poetry that Lowell gave us so long ago. I mean, at least Lowell could write "my mind's not right," while Goldbarth seems to have moved from problems of the mind to problems of the prostate — dramatic problems, if you have them, but less sublime than Lowell's madness. But — and here's the good stuff — the poem doesn't stick to these very local, personal problems, at least not directly. It takes an odd and interesting turn, and places the treatment of these individual problems in the context of (wait for it) the American Revolution. You get the oddest sort of parallels between modern urology and Revolutionary history and, surpisingly, it works. There's something of the metaphysical poets' famous yoking together of the apparently unlike here, a kind of virtuoso quality that you fear you're not going to get when you read those opening lines.

More later, on Prufer this time, who's got an interesting way of placing the personal in the context of Classical history. But I've got a list of articles and reviews I've promised to write that's become about knee-high (including a full-dress review of Prufer and Goldbarth for the Notre Dame Review). So off to work.

Also: I'll be giving a reading Thursday night at 9:00 at Hideout in Chicago (1354 W. Wabansia), with Jason Bredle, Kristy Odelius, and others, including (as the Chicago Reader ominously puts it) "surprise guests."