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Saturday, May 11, 2013

"Risk Management Memo: Small Enterprise" by Mary Biddinger -- Verse Daily, 5/9/2013

from Gulf Coast
poem found here


First lines:
You wanted to open a café called
Rimbaud’s Helicopter. I just kept telling


clothesline poetry and unity (with a bit about Surrealism)

— reformatted 9/30/15

This is a good example of a certain kind of poetry, what I have called and what I have heard called "clothesline poems": called such in that it is, essentially a list of phrases or sentences clipped to a clothesline. (Do not expect to find that word in any poetry dictionary or glossary: the term is wholly conversational.) And, as far as these kinds of poems go, it is cleanly written (except for the problem with the "Our entire city" line, which is either suddenly surreal or has an issue with its construction; and then the minor problem with the italicized "look loveable" – which I don't think works as well as it could as internal dialogue what with the "to.")

I would very much like to hear Ms. Biddinger defend this poem. In fact, this poem would make a launching point for a wonderful discussion on poetics and aesthetics, either in printed word or in person (though, if in person I believe it would take some mad projection screen skills).

This would be my framing question for such a debate: In the general, what makes this poem of merit? In the more specific, how does this poem function, and does it at all rise above the poetic level of somewhat arbitrary sentences strung along a clothesline?

So let's take a look. Structurally, the lines are arbitrary as regards the words (they are quite obviously broken for their length, and that alone), and the stanzas are also an arbitrary application of three line stanzas. (It is curious to me how the final line came in within tolerations.) The content of the poem is entirely made of grammatically normal sentences, at times related to each other in idea.

My critique of this poem is that it goes nowhere fast. There is no development of any nature – ideational, aural, structural, whatever. Reading it is like reading a laundry list, or like listening to my daughter tell me about her magazine cut-out, Christmas list: "I want this, and this, and this, and this, and this, and this." There is no development; no one sentence has any more or less importance than any other sentence; and all the sentences pretty much have only one type of importance: "I exist." As such, by the time I get to the fifth stanza (and rarely with these poems do I get farther than about 15 lines) I don't care anymore. Why should I care when every burgeoning moment of development is thwarted, almost at its inception, by a subject change?

I am exaggerating a touch, so let's pause and actually look. The poem can actually be broken, fairly easily, into its constituent ideas. (I put it back into sentences, since the lines are purposeless. I number them for reference.)

  1. You wanted to open a café called Rimbaud’s Helicopter.
  2. I just kept telling myself to look loveable.
  3. We watched Apocalypse Now in two sleeping bags zipped together incorrectly.
  4. I confessed how I was making a bejeweled saddle for a racehorse I would never own. His name would be Look Loveable. He would think about killing all the other jockeys because I rode him so right.
  5. And this was the only true benefit of being small.
  6. In camp they buried me first, then poured the curdled cider into my hair. My mother joined in, but only in my imagination.
  7. You wanted to give me an outrageous hickey and to drown yourself before turning twenty.
  8. All my friends knew better than to try swimming in hayfields.
  9. I met you at the gun house.
  10. Somebody had put new curtains up, but nothing could take away the head-marks on the walls.
  11. Our entire city became a place that turned its back on coffee, even marzipan ducklings.
  12. There’s a reason everyone loves the same things. That reason will never be you.

(Since the last thing is the most recent, I want to here quickly point hout how the end lines of the poem an emotion bomb: which is usually an attempt to bring something emotionally profound (that said tongue-in-cheek) to an otherwise blasé poem. It's not a huge bomb, as far as bombs go; but the character of the lines is somewhat different than that of those preceding it.)

I split #5 from #4 even though it flows out of #4, because there is in #5 a strong sense of stand-alone-ness. (That is, while it flows out of #4, it tries to declares a new idea.) But, I would equally accept having it as part of #4. Similarly with #9 and #10, except that I think the tie between them is much thinner, and would argue against bringing them together. Similarly again, my argument with #4 and #5 could be used to separate #12 into two statements: but to me the energies speak more to their needing to be together.

Now, it is easy to come to the idea that the first three are tied together by setting, one established in #3. In fact, it could be argued that the whole of the poem occurs in the setting. Except for three points:

  1. The sentence of #3 is in the same past time – and same past moment – as every other sentence. Verb-wise, time-wise, all the sentences are equal, and as such there is no real justification in picking out #3 as that establishing the narrative setting.
  2. The same argument to have #3 be setting can be used to have #9 be setting. Since both are equal, and you can't have both, then are struck as scene setting moments.
  3. Even if you do accept #3's setting as the establishing of a narrative scene, it is irrelevant to the reading of the poem: that scene does not engage with any other element in the poem to generate new ideational energies. You might as well have written "in the grotto of the centaur Charon" as a epigram under the title to set the scene: it would still be irrelevant to the ideation of any of the lines. Scene only functions as ideational energies with the other elements of the text feed and feed from those energies. But, here, there is no such energy created.

So there is no narrative flow connecting the sentences, and the ideational connectivity exists only in brief spurts. #11, to chose an easy one, can not be said to bring any development to #1-10. There is an idea there, but that idea is lost in the chaos. Perhaps a better phrase is: that idea falls limp among the clutter. There is no point to any sentence except to read it, be done with it, and move on to the next sentence.

So the, as regards the sentences, I must ask, is there really anything present poetics-wise other than the oddity of the words, the pseudo-surrealist play. (I say pseudo- there not in any negative sense.) For example, #three is a simple sentence – "We watched Apocalypse Now in two sleeping bags zipped together." – given a twist with "incorrectly." But that twist has no energetic play outside the moment of the singular sentence. So what poetic energies created by the twist, ends as soon as you get to the period.

Now, Surrealism is very much to the point her. And anyone who at all has studied poetry should be familiar with the experiments of Surrealism, experiments that would result in poetry with disjunctive lines, like these, the opening lines from Breton's "Blotter of Ash":

The birds will be bored

If I'd forgotten something

Ring the bell of those last schooldays in the sea
What we'll call the pensive borage

The success of the Surrealist experiments is that they are demonstration of how abutting (nearly) any two ideas will create new energies that exist in neither of the ideas independently. (To give but two examples of how this idea is not "Surrealist" specifically, but more accurately that fundamental aspect of the aesthetic upon which Surrealism focused, this is the same idea behind EIsenstein's techniques in film, and the same idea that played (if in smaller degree) in Symbolist painting in the 19th century.) Such experiments were (and are) interesting – indeed, important – techniques, methods, and explorations within the worlds of the aesthetic and the poetic. But, that does not mean that these methods result in successful poetry. In fact, the argument over whether such poems were successful poems or merely demonstrations of technique was part of the split between Breton and Batailles: Batailles being the one that argued that a successful aesthetic object still required a sense of unity, still required that sense of the creator creating a microcosmos. (These are his ideas, but not his words). And, later in life, Breton would come around to accept such.

This is the idea of unity that gives success to what is, perhaps, Breton's most well-known poem: "Free Union."[FN] Yes, "Free Union" is a list poem, but it has two elements that pulls it out of a mere list of elements and into a unified, organic (if surrealistic surrealistic) poem: (1) it is about a single woman; and (2) every line conveys an aspect of the nature of the speaker's desire for that woman. While the descriptive element of the specific lines may seem to be random, they come together in that they are not, in the end, a list of metaphors for body parts, but in that they are about about the experience of the beauty of a particular female body, spoken through desire, if not also lust.

[FN] I prefer the Zavatsky/Bogow translation, which begins "My woman with the forest-fire hair" – not that I am saying it is more representative a translation, rather that I think the result is aesthetically better. The translation is found the collection Earthlight, wholly translated by Zavatsky and Bogow. To note, some may argue it is really about a specific woman's body, and not about the actual woman as a whole being. I think that artificially shrinks the reading of the poem and artificially categorizes and restricts the nature of the idea of desire that energizes the poem. But that's a different discussion.

Now, does "Risk Management," here, offer such a union? Or does it fail to escape the status of mere list? That is my primary question. And, my answer, is that it does not. Yes, these poems carry the same curiousness and interest as do the Surrealist experiments; but it is not a successful poem. In fact, it might as well be broken up in into twelve separate poems, as I have done above; even if under one grouping title. (But, then, that would make arbitrary line breaks and three line stanzas rather difficult, no?)

And this point would be where, in the imagined debate, I would turn to the other party.

Though, it should be recognized, there is a second question, which should not be confused with the above, through which one can find a different path to discussion. That is, is there some other way that this poem unifies and I am missing it? Or, what I would argue in response, is the poet saying that this form in itself is justification for the poem? To which I would respond: yes, it is justification for the poem. But, that is not saying terribly much. Which is what Batailles would have said to Breton: yes, surrealist experiments make for at times interesting results, and there is much to be learned about ideation and metaphoricity through those experiments, and you can justify the results as poems because what they demonstrate. But as poems, as created objects, they are in the end rather unsophisticated things, perhaps with a lot of bluster but not really going anywhere, because they lack the over all unity of being a thing created, of being a thing calculated.

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