Wednesday 27 July 2011

“Two scoops of John Ashbery and a sprinkling of Gertrude Stein”

That’s a quote from a review by David Orr in the New York Times, 2008, of Modern Life by the American poet Matthea Harvey.  Not exactly today’s news.  I think I found it when I was reading Harvey’s first book, Pity the Bathtub Its Forced Embrace of the Human Form.  You can read the title poem from that book here: weird, eclectic, fluent, its syntax wrong-footing the reader.  She is among the eighty-something US poets in the anthology Legitimate Dangers, which is one place to find out what younger generation Americans are doing.  I heard about the book from Roddy Lumsden, who knows a lot about this. 

That’s fairly typical of my forays into the American jungle of younger contemporary poets – a recommendation, and one book leading to another.  Which is enjoyable, if unsystematic.  Anyway, at the end of this trail was David Orr’s article, and it was this extract that struck me:

“..Harvey’s technique is a variation on the trendiest contemporary style, which relies heavily on disconnected phrases, abrupt syntactical shifts, attention-begging titles (“The Gem Is on Page Sixty-Four”), quirky diction (“orangery,” “aigrettes”), flickering italics, oddball openings (“The scent of pig is faint tonight”) and a tone ranging from daffy to plangent — basically, two scoops of John Ashbery and a sprinkling of Gertrude Stein. It’s not hard to write acceptable poetry in this mode, which is one of the reasons so many people make use of it.”

(He goes on to say that Harvey does this very well, and rises above it in the book being reviewed.) 

For a Brit, even one with easy access to the Poetry Library in London, there aren’t many signposts in this jungle and the trails are faint.  So grand generalisations like Orr’s are helpful.  It probably makes sense to anyone who’s read Legitimate Dangers, which is where I also found out about Brenda Shaughnessy whose first book I discussed here a few months ago. 

I like the ice-cream metaphor because this kind of poetry is rich with lots of colourful bits, some of them hard to identify, and I can’t always decide whether I like the flavour that’s the sum of these parts, or even what it is. 

Harvey’s second book, which I’m reading at the moment, is called Sad Little Breathing Machine, and full of poems that live up to this title and meet Orr’s definition.  Here’s the beginning of ‘If you like sugar I’ll like sugar too’:

I’m making a little machine.
Not everywhere do cows move

slowly among the trees like ideas. 
Not everyone gets a dollop

of cream & some ground glass
to look through.  It’s a spectacle

all right.  Help me attach the prism
to the jump rope.  I sold the chapel

because it contained no nouns –

The poem continues similarly for several more stanzas, leaping from idea to idea, some easily associateable and some not, like a surreal skipping chant.  I love the cows/ideas bit – so simple, and a satisfying mixture of abstract and concrete.  I like the chapel and am intrigued by its lack of nouns, but do wonder whether I’m meant to understand something more from it than a representation of subconscious associations.  Overall, I find the parts more interesting than the whole.  Looking through the book, the same applies.  (A couple of whole poems from the book are here and here, and more of Harvey’s poems here.) There are some very lovely sound bites:

Center your swan on the pond.   

          ...the fish that live
in a plastic bag think the edges

of the world pucker.


In the back they are collecting
bullets so do you really want to talk

about love? 

There are also a few poems I like the whole of, such as ‘Machine for Jean Rhys’ which starts

It’s all lit up with handfuls
& eyefuls & it doesn’t want you

because that’s what you want.

The prose poem ‘Once upon a time: a genre fable’, the life story of Narrative, nearly had me fall into the gap between the platform and the train at Waterloo East as I stepped out reading it:

For a while Narrative formed a trio with two malleable girls whom she happily ordered around, but then they turned thirteen & Poetry & Art began to behave unpredictably in the presence of boys.  Annoyed, Narrative withdrew into television – mainly sitcoms & after a particularly explicit documentary about slaughterhouses, changed her beloved pony’s name from First Pet to Glue. 

When I pick the book up I read a few poems and appreciate the really good bits – made easier as many of the poems are in couplets, giving room to breathe – but soon get a surfeit of multi-coloured bits and of the tone, which is as described by Orr.  Then I wonder whether I should work harder, try to make more sense of the book.  It is carefully ordered, with six sections each with an introductory poem to something (eg Eden, Circumference).  Or whether it’s a matter of an acquired taste and I should take Harvey’s own advice, in the book’s first poem, ‘Introduction to the World’, which I like, and which ends:

If you’re lucky

after a number of
revolutions, you’ll

feel something catch. 

That may apply to other books in the American jungle too.  I’m grateful that the jungle is so vast, and I’ll never be able to read everything in it.  There’ll always be something new to discover.  Here is an extract from a sequence called ‘The Future of Terror’ in Harvey’s most recent book Modern Life (I’ve taken it from Orr’s article; haven’t read the book yet, though this bit makes me want to):

The navigator’s needle swung strangely,
oscillating between the oilwells
and ask again later. We tried to pull ourselves
together by practicing quarterback sneaks
along the pylons, but the race to the ravine
was starting to feel as real as the R.I.P.’s
and roses carved into rock. Suddenly the sight
of a schoolbag could send us scrambling.

***      ***      ***
This blog is going on holiday, so there won’t be any posts for a couple of weeks.  I’m taking The Ground Aslant, a Shearsman anthology of radical landscape poetry, and the latest issue of The SHOp.

*** STOP PRESS *** A petition to restore the Poetry Society has just been launched… You can read it, and sign it, here.

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