Because of her tendency to write the best reviews around, Joyelle gets copies of just about every book published in this country, from small small presses to Graywolf and Copper Canyon etc. I actually tend to at least glance through most of them - read the backcover (notoriously), read a few poems, look at the design etc.
From this superficial practice, I've learned quite a bit - for example trends in blurbs, or how obviously publishing is about what Kasey and Anne termed "competence" a while back on Kasey’s Lime Tree blogsite.
And, that the most interesting poetry is that which wreaks havoc on our expectance of competence in some way. One of the best examples from literary history is the way Sylvia Plath wreaked havoc on the (still) dominant strain of Stevens-esque use of nonsense - in Stevens silly figures of otherness say kooky little things (Muslims, Swedes, Aztec types), in Plath, the speaker speaks from the point of view of the silly figures, speaking horrifically in her nonsense. Totally tasteless. And more recently, I've skipped through a whole bunch of books that turn Plath into a kind of competence (Cate Marvin, Erin Belieu), and also quite a few that - more interestingly - wreak havoc on that competence (Arian Reines's bored and belligerent Plath, Danielle Pafunda's Donna-Haraway-Plath). No doubt, people who establish competence are much more likely to be hired to teach in CW programs because hiring committees look for competence, not originality.
Anyway, this is a long way of getting to what I was really going to write about: the influence of James Tate on contemporary poetry. His poetics crop up with quite a bit of frequency, and I am thinking about him this morning. In part this is because a couple of days ago, while putting up books from boxes, I came across "Distance from Loved Ones" and sat down and read it. I hadn't read it before, and I was struck by how much of it seemed familiar from reading works by my contemporaries. And this coinciding with me thinking about a couple of books recently received that are very much part of this tradition: Zach Schomburg's "The Man Suit" and Christian Hawkey's "Citizen Of." These books had recently led me to reread my favorite book in this tradition - Cort Day's "The Chime" (which was published a few years ago).
Here are some lines”
I was standing in the lobby,
some irritant in my eye,
thinking back on a soloist
I once heard in Venezuela,
and then, for some reason,
on a crate of oranges recently
arrived from a friend in Florida…
(James Tate, “Bewitched”)
We exchanged looks – all three of us –
& mine was totally better: it had rose-colored sequins
glued along the hemline & the word sneezeweed
in one pocket…”
On the Monster Hour, there was this monster that used to come out and try to kill everybody in the audience. No one expected it, not even the producers.
A large part of this poetics is a slackening of effect, an undoing of the conventional poetic need to “put pressure on language.” So you have these vague kinds of colloquial markers: “some irritant,” “for some reason,” “this monster,” “totally better” etc.
But I think it also has to do with another big influence, and that it the tradition of the American tall tale- Have you heard the one about the guy who was so tall he had use a ladder to shave in the morning? Or the one about the guy who was so poor he had to take the place of the bait in the mousetrap?
Constance Rourke discusses this strain of American culture in his seminal book “American Humor.” And of course DH Lawrence writes about “weird old America.” And Greil Marcus writes about both of these books in his book about Bob Dylan’s “Basement Tapes.”
[If there’s a soundtrack to these poems, it’s definitely the casual, throwaway songs of the Basement Tapes. The most relevant example is probably “Quinn the Eskimo” and its blend of casual tone and weird imagery. But “The Clothesline Saga” seems to foretell Tate’s more recent poetry in its total deferral of everything. And Dylan has repeatedly claimed (in one of his myriad of autobiographical revisionisms) that his surrealistic imagery comes solely out of the American folk idiom (not a chance, but that’s another entry).]
The tall-tale influence also accounts for some aspects on what is often termed “surreal” in these kinds of poems. Seems to me it has just as much to do with tall-tales as European Surrealism Proper. In one of his memoirs, Simic writes that he spent a lot of time reading tall tales and books of American folklore. That’s interesting because of his ties to European Surrealism.
Another thing they get from tall tales is the persona, what Rourke calls “the mask” – the very American narrator who says funny/horrible things without showing any emotion.
[Part of what makes Cort’s book great is because he doesn’t get this right – his speaker often falters into a kind of confusion mask – “I only get ten minutes in this mask” – a brilliant lapse in competence.]
Another element of the tradition is its relationship to 19th century photography. These days we tend to think of photography as a figure of objectivity, but with its invention in the 19th century the whole idea of objectivity in perception is in a state of flux (See Jonathan Crary’s books for example, or Michael North’s recent “Camera Works”). For one thing, people looked very odd and artificial in their poses. Secondly photographs take in an enormous amount of detail, which made them very “noisy” to people back then (or even in the early 20th century) who were not quite literate in looking at photographs. But most importantly, photography (and early film) is immediately tied to tricks of various kinds – not to mention spiritualism and ghost photographs.
The best part of “The Man Suit” is the long poem called “Abraham Lincoln Death Scene” (though it could have been called AL’s Death Suite, or AL’s Man Suite) – because it’s less Tate-ish and more like trick photography. The piece consists of a series of variations of Lincoln’s death scene. The photographic feeling coming form the lack of verbs: “The sexy right leg of one of Booth’s accomplices in fishnet stockings… A blood-splattered St. Bernard.”
At its best, this feels a little like Cindy Sherman’s costume-playing photography. Or Muybridge’s galloping horse. Or like the photographs are bullets. Of course I can’t help but think of Suzan Lori Parks’ “America Play” with the guy who works as Abe Lincoln at an amusement park – people paying to be Booth. This also makes me think about the role of race in photography/visual culture (North discusses this as it related to the dubious racial politics of Bob Brown’s readies)
Somewhere in the Tate Tradition there must be a poem about the Civil War photographer who sold the glass plates of his photographs to some guy who used them in his greenhouse.
Another interesting take on the Pate tradition is Ben Lerner’s Benjamin-inflected “Angle of Yaw.” As that collection makes very clear, there’s also a connection to Stevens and his use of nonsense (see above).
Well, those are just some random ideas.