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A site for exploration and discussion about verse, poetics, the aesthetic, and creative writing in general.

Because there is a profound difference between writing something to be read and writing something worth reading; and in that difference might beauty be found.



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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

"My God, It's Full of Stars" and Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith

Life on Mars (Graywolf Press, 2011)
poem found online at Poetry Foundation site here
 

First lines:
We like to think of it as parallel to what we know,
Only bigger. One man against the authorities.

 

reading selectively and reading collectively — another demonstration that reading well means close reading

minor editing, an added footnote, and moving a bit to the end — 7/31/2014

This post has been added to the Hatter's Cabinet site via its Best of the Poetry Daily Critique page
 

This post focuses on "My God, It's Full of Stars" because it has been published online in Poetry Magazine. Though, I will take the opportunity to reach out from the one poem and give some consideration to the Pulitzer winning book Life on Mars as a whole. In such, I hope to offer something of a critical review of the book without abandoning the normal focus here of exploring poems to the end of writing poems. One of the motivations I had in expanding my purview beyond the two Daily sites was to be able to talk about books of poetry – which is to say poems in an organized group – as well as individual poems. What better choice for such exploration than books already selected for consideration by the Pulitzer committee.

There needs to be here some words towards transparency. First, I do not think much of the Pulitzer prize. I do not buy books on the basis of the committees' judgments. Indeed I have never bought a book because it either won the prize or was short listed for it. The Pulitzer has never done anything for as long as I have given attention to it (when I give attention to it) to convince me that it has any genuine, valuable, critical merit; and, it has done much to persuade me otherwise. Second, I did not purchase Life on Mars for the purpose of reviewing it. I bought it only because it was new to the poetry shelf at a used bookstore I frequent. Thus, it is only chance that it came to my possession and in turn only chance that it is appearing here. What previous knowledge I have of the book is limited to my having picked it up in a book store after it won the award. Though, I put it back finding it on perusal as something that was not going to change my mind about the Pulitzer.

As a final note in preface, in writing this post I came to realize I needed to give my general assessment of the book, though I did not at first want to, as it is not a uniform book and I want to present where general statements about the book may not apply. Except for some minor typographical play and the presence of a decent go with the form of a villanelle, the text of the book is mostly prose with line breaks (and mostly prose whose line breaks serve no apparent purpose other than to create the appearance of poetry, line breaks which not infrequently work against the natural pacing of the prose). In the sense of the poetic/prosaic distinction I have been carrying over the last couple of posts, there is not that much of the poetic in the language of the book. While there are interesting moments in the book, creatively speaking, it as frequently falls back on the trite. (For example, there is nothing either new or interesting in the Iraq moments, and that should have been a cue that they should have been left out entirely.) For the most part, I did not think much of the poems in the book, and found myself constantly confronted by what I can only call overt flaws.

Though – and this is really the point of this note – it must be said that the last (fourth) section of the book stands out as being far stronger than what precedes it. With the exception of "Challenger" (which, except for the last line, may be the best work in the book), all the poems I consider of merit (though not all moments of merit) are found there (like "Eggs Norwegian," "Field Guide," and "Universe as Primal Scream"). Though, you must recognize in that statement that what I find "of merit" must be understood in the context that the works are mostly prose with line breaks; and to me every one of those poems could be improved by either abandoning line breaks and developing them into prose poems or by moving entirely into the poetic and writing with conscious attention to poetic structure. Indeed that might make for interesting exercises/explorations. (And has, to the degree I have done it myself.)


 

I want start here with a moment from Coleridge's Biographia Literaria. (I have been reading through BL – the first time actually reading through it – and reading criticism about it and Coleridge, so you can expect it to be making appearances here as I share my explorations.) The idea being presented is applicable not only to the poem but also to the book as a whole and, extending out, to much of what populates the world of pop-poetry today. This is from one of Coleridge's footnotes in chapter 2 (page 39 of the Engell/Bate Collected Works edition).

In the course of my lectures, I had occasion to point out the almost faultless position and choice of words, in Mr. Pope's original compositions, particularly in his satires and moral essays, for the purpose of comparing them with his translation of Homer, which I do not stand alone in regarding them as the main source of our pseudo-poetic diction. [. . .] Among other passages, I analyzed sentence by sentence, and almost word by word, the popular lines,
          As when the moon, resplendent lamp of light, &c.
[. . .]. The impression on the audience in general was sudden and evident: and a number of enlightened and highly educated individuals, who at different times afterwards addressed me on the subject, expressed their wonder, that truth so obvious should not have struck them before; but at the same time acknowledged (so much had they been accustomed, in reading poetry, to receive pleasure from the separate images and phrases successively, without asking themselves whether the collective meaning was sense or nonsense) that they might in all probability have read the same passage again twenty times with undiminished admiration, and without once reflecting, that ἄστρα φαεινὴν ἀμφι σελήνην φείνετ ἀριπρεπέα (i.e., the stars around, or near the full moon, shine pre-eminently bright) conveys a just and happy image of a moonlight sky: while it is difficult to determine whether in the lines,
          Around her throne the vivid planets roll,
          And stars unnumber'd gild the glowing pole, [FN1]
the sense, or the diction be the more absurd.

Key to this post is that which lies within the parenthetical: "so much had they been accustomed, in reading poetry, to receive pleasure from the separate images and phrases successively, without asking themselves whether the collective meaning was sense or nonsense." If you know anything about BL or Coleridge, you will recognize that the thought here is grounded in the central idea of Coleridge's theory of poetry, that of the organic text, of the text – both in writing and in reading – as a unified whole. This is opposed to the mechanical text which is but a sequence of textual events, mechanically moving from one to the next without necessary thought to any unification of the parts into a whole. The collective against the selective: words that speak well to the greater meaning, especially, in today's culture of poetry, as regards selective.[FN2]

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[FN1] All emphasis Coleridge's. The first line is from Pope's translation of the Iliad (VIII 687). The second excerpt (8.555-6), in Greek, is translated by Coleridge. The third returns to Pope (VIII 691-2). (This information from the editor's notes on the text.)

[FN2] I am here (imperfectly) wording the idea of the organic text in a manner that limits it to the subject at hand. Though, so also does the idea appear ever and again throughout the BL: in the manner that it speaks to the topic at hand. Coleridge addresses directly (and more than once) to the importance that any approach to poetry should be grounded on a philosophy of poetry, and BL demonstrates that requirement throughout.
*********************

Look at the final lines from Pope, at the words Coleridge highlights.Within two lines describing one moment Pope has a throne, a pole, the idea of rolling (about the throne), and "unnumber'd" stars upon the pole. However you read the word "pole" (whether literally or pushed to its figurative limits) there is no real connection – no unifying sense – to be made out of the elements of the words. The language creates absurdities . . . . if the reader but expand their own vision to see past the singular moments and look instead to the whole, to the broader, to the full context. What sense is to be made, what sense can be made of planets rolling around a throne?

I see this – I should say this will be seen – all over contemporary poetry. The idea demonstrated in the specific example above is but one form of it, if one of the more prevalent forms. It is to me one of the most glaring issues as regards not just the writing but also the reading and reviewing of contemporary poetry (and even the teaching of writing). It is time and again demonstrated that readers – and I am speaking here especially of professional readers, be they academic, reviewers, or voices of the culture of contemporary poetry – are far too readily impressed by the passing, clever phrase and usually show little if any consideration to how the phrase works – if it at all works – within the immediate or larger contexts of the poem. (Even, when appropriate, within the book.)

Let me give you a stark example from Life on Mars, from "Sci-Fi," the second poem in the book. (It is actually the first poem of Part I. There is a short introductory poem before it.) These are lines 3-6:

History, with its hard spine & dog-eared
Corners, will be replaced with nuance,

Just like the dinosaurs gave way
To mounds and mounds of ice.

After the example of Pope, can you see the issue I have with the lines? History replaced with nuance is compared to dinosaurs replaced with ice. Let me make us of the cheap printing costs of the electronic page:

history : nuance :: dinosaurs : ice

First: it is rather by fiat that a distinction can be made between history and nuance. How is history not already filled with nuance? After all, it is entirely interpretation of events. But I give a momentary benefit of the doubt and permit the text to establish what is meant. Second:

hard history : nuance :: dinosaurs : ice

Hard is replaced by not hard is like dinosaurs replaced by hard? Ice is hard, after all. Ice is a hell of a lot harder than dinosaurs. Third:

history : nuance :: dinosaurs : ice

Nuance: subtleties, "delicate degrees of difference" says my Webster's. I have a very hard time seeing how ice offers demonstration of nuance. First, as said, it is hard. Second, it naturally holds an edge: it is erosion that smooths the edges into curves. Third, if you at all think about ice sculpture, one of the difficulties of the medium is that you cannot create subtleties: the surface of sice smooths out both to touch and to the eye into a generally featureless sensation, not one filled with nuance.

Fourth, it is not only ice but "mounds and mounds" of ice: the implied massive quantities again works in counter to any idea of difference or nuance.

Fifth and finally, how are mounds and mounds of ice at all either softer than dinosaurs or more varied, more full of nuance than dinosaurs?

The comparison makes no sense if you at all look at it, if you at all bother to read it. It is no rescue of the moment to say something of the nature of "you are not supposed to read it that closely," because you are supposed to read it that closely. That is what reading is. A text that asks you not to read closely is a text that is asking you – if not requiring of you – to close down the faculties of the mind in favor of the absence of effort, attention, and, as a result, value. Reading closely is reading, full stop; anything less is less than reading.[FN]

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[FN] For food for thought, compare these options:
replace history, with its hard spine, with nuance

replace hard-spined history with nuance

replace a hard-spined history with nuance
Notice how the first option is saying all history is hard-spined (which is rather facetious generalization). The third option, however, is speaking only about that kind of history written with hard spines. The first demands the reader accept the generalization. The third requires nothing of the sort, and shifts the focus of the phrasing from the very broad history to what is the defining element of the phrase: hard-spined. As such, the comparison is no longer between history and nuance, but between that history that is written with a hard spine and nuance.
*********************

 

Life on Mars is unfortunately replete with such moments (primarily in the first three parts), not only moments of pretty lines that make no sense in context, but also in lines that present ideas by fiat, expecting the reader to accept them despite all impetus to the contrary. A perfect example – and a lesser example – of this is in "The Largeness We Can't See" (third stanza):

It's solid, yet permeable, like a mood.
Like God, it has no face. Like lust,
It flickers on without a prick of guilt.

(My emphasis.) The lesser incident is the latter, the idea that lust is devoid of guilt. That is one possible scenario: it is not hard to imagine a situation of guiltless lust. But at the same time there is quite a body of stories in the world involving characters burdened by guilt connected to unrelenting lust. (There is no small portion of the field of psychology dedicated to that situation.) This could readily be fixed by rewriting: "Like lust without the pricking of guilt": it saves the wanted idea and cuts free the unwanted.

The greater example, however, is the emphasized. The poem asks us to make a comparison saying "Like God, it has no face." But the idea of seeing, of looking into "the face of god" is a well-established trope in religious literature (if not literature in general). Indeed, in Western tradition, the idea of the face of god is biblical. So by fiat, the poem asks me to make a comparison to a phrase that bucks a great body of ideas, giving us nothing by which to fill that phrase with meaning as it might apply to the poem. I read the poem: "'Like God, it has no face.'" My first thought is, "but 'the face of god' is a rather full bodied idea in many religious cultures, so the poem here is trying to establish something counter to that idea." And I ask, then, "What is the idea the poem is trying to establish?" But there is nothing in the poem to anwer that question. The line is a variation of that described above: it is a line that that may be pretty when read sequentially, but when read collectively makes no sense. In this instance, it makes no sense in that it is mostly empty of meaning. In that the poem is asking the reader to make a comparison to something that is mostly empty of meaning, the poem loses coherence, loses its sense.

The final, fifth part of "My God, It's Full of Stars" ends with such a line:

The optics jibed. We saw to the edge of all there is –

So brutal and alive it seemed to comprehend us back.

I cannot recall a time that I have looked at an astronomical image and seen it as "brutal." This is another description by fiat: we are supposed to accept space as being "brutal" even though the most dominant ideas associated with the cosmological circulate around the idea of stillness, even, in the spiritual sense, of the eternal. The astronomical realm changes at speeds mostly imperceptible to the human eye. Even the idea of a supernova, which is about at violent as space can get, is perceived in the sense of the majestic, not in the sense of brutality. Brutal: "savage; cruel; inhuman; brutish; unfeeling, like a brute; merciless," says Webster. Notice, not merely "unfeeling," which may fit the cold dispassion of space, but "unfeeling, like a brute," as in animalistic. That does not fit the astronomical. There is nothing in the poem – especially not in that section – up to that point that substantiates or validates describing the vision of space through Hubble as "brutal." The idea reads as though plucked out of a hat.

Indeed, there is nothing in the poem that gives any substance or validity to "it seemed to comprehend us back." That idea is equally non sequitur. In fact, there are statements ideationally against it. In part one there is at the start the idea of the human on the run, and at the end the books tell "the most remarkable lies." In the middle, in the ocean, where there would be quite the opportunity to generate the idea of the brutality of space (seeing how the deep ocean is readily compared to the unknowns of space), the opportunity is rejected and the poem moves to the other direction: "Bouyant, bizarrely benign." Part 2 ends with "Our eyes adjust to the dark" after a description of Atlantis buried in ice. As well, it is difficult not to read the end of part 4 as emptying space of mystery. (That moment itself a major problem with the poem, but I will return to that later.)

 

Smith seems to have a penchant for closing poems on energy charged final lines or final thoughts. Easily three quarters of the poems in the book (including substantially sized sections of the large poems) close on such a final line/thought. Reading across the book, it reads like a habit, though, not an intended technique. Sometimes they do work, but too often they detract from the poem (pulling too much energy to the end), are unsubstantiated by the poem, or create nonsensical or just clumsy endings. However much it has become a staple convention of movies, it is generally a bad idea to create a new idea at the end of the poem. Even when it does not create contradictions, the reader is left asking "if this idea was worth saying, and worth saying with energy, why did you not develop it throughout the poem? Why present it as a closing quip?" For example, the phrase "blinding, bright lives" in "The Speed of Belief" brings in ideas up to that point outside the field of ideas generated by the poem. There is no reason for the words to have been brought it; and, if there was reason, why not generate the ideas throughout the text of the poem? It is another example of writing sequentially, successively, rather than collectively. I do not understand the pebble on the tongue at the end of "Saviour Machine"; and "scrutable" at the end of "Sci-Fi" does not meld with the preceding poem (doubly bad when, by the rhetoric of the poem, that moment should be acting in the nature of summarizing).

The worst instance of it, for me, is, as said above, with "Challenger," which is a clever, extended, metaphorical description of a rocket taking off. By the title it is presumed the poem is about the Challenger disaster. But there is nothing in the poem outside of the title and the last two phrases that distinguishes the seventeen previous lines as not being a generic description of a rocket. The final lines:

Blast off! she likes to think, though
What comes to mind at the moment
Is earthly. A local wind. Chill and small.

I can catch the idea of where the poem wants to go. Though, for me, both "chill" and "small" are poor choices of words. I want "a local wind" to work, but just can not get it to. The reason is that the whole of the poem is about the ship engines being so full of energy the engines can barely keep itself together. But then we are supposed to believe that the what comes to mind at the moment of blast off is "a local wind"? I can see it trying to create a sudden shift to the Challenger disaster, and I can also see that it is not aiming specifically at the disaster but merely at some more earthbound idea, but both paths wholly fail. The reason lies in that no real energy was put into developing an ideational field coming out of "local wind" and "chill and small." As such, the end of the poem reads like a gimmick. The difference between a cheap fright and true fear in a horror film is that the former exists by being unconnected to the context (it appears only when it begins and disappears as soon as it is over); whereas fear is ideational, it is grounded, it is generated and developed and informs the film as a whole. Tacking on undeveloped endings to a poem are only ever cheap frights; the person hiding in the closet. It is an unfortunate ending for the poem.

 

I have drifted far from my line. Let's return to the idea presented through Coleridge, and look look at an example in "My God, It's Full of Stars." This is the first two stanzas of the first part:

We like to think of it as parallel to what we know,
Only bigger. One man against the authorities.
Or one man against a city of zombies. One man

Who is not, in fact, a man, sent to understand
The caravan of men now chasing him like red ants
Let loose down the pants of America. Man on the run.

The idea established here is of the one against the many. It is played with when the one is declared to be not a man and is set against the many that are men. The governing context of the extended thought is anchored by the last phrase: the singular "man on the run," which works quite well with the one against authorities or zombies. But what happens in line 5? First:

The caravan of men now chasing him like red ants

There is something like a stretch being asked the reader with the idea of ants chasing something. When one thinks of ants on the move – whether individually or as an army – the idea associated is of a creature marching along steadfastly following the path in front of it (be it one of the terrain or one created by other ants). Ants do not "chase." But beyond that:

Let loose down the pants of America. [. . .]

wholly disrupts the chain of thought. If the ants were chasing the man, then the pants belong to the man – the man who is has thrice now been put in opposition against the many. But the pants are here stated as being "the pants of America." So the man is America? It might be argued that the text is expanding the idea, manipulating it in the flow into something new. But any such argument is defeated by the next phrase, the definitively stated,

[. . .] Man on the run.

The poem reasserts the original idea: the one against the many. As such, the phrase "Let loose down the pants of America" – however much the phrase on its own (that is read selectively) may appeal to the reader – and it is so very much a pop poetry phrasing –, it makes little if any sense when read in context.

(Just to note before moving on, the first section of "My God" is a list of four extended ideas, four "maybe it is"s. The third – that of the mother and toddling child – I found trite, especially when it is followed by the quite creative, fourth idea (that of a library and its books).)

 

If I were to step backwards from Coleridge's statement above to the more general idea of which it was an example, that is, without going all the way back to the broad idea of organicism, staying within the process of writing, I would be talking about ideational control. Writing phrase by phrase, one after the other, is not controlled writing. A great paragraph is not prose that is written to the point where one needs a visual break. A great paragraph has its own identity. A quality stanza has its own identity, of some nature, to some degree. Simply by making a stanza break such identity is unavoidably declared. (If you do not want your stanzas to have independence, why are you writing in stanzas?)

Reading selectively as described by Coleridge, reading for the pleasure of the small moments without attending to the whole, makes vanish a great many errors and problems in texts. Indeed, makes vanish the the greater part of the issue of ideational control. The third section of "My God, It's Full of Stars" is a good example of this.

(To note, I as a reader can come up with no real reason why the third stanza is typeset in the manner it is, double spaced. Perhaps it is intended that they are one-line stanzas; though, to me that would be demonstration if not declaration of just how silly breaking prose into stanzas can become. For the most part I find the double-spaced lines visually annoying. But I think a far greater issue with it is that it looks like a printing error. For the sake of keeping the text easy to read, I am here going to ignore the empty space.)

Section 3 opens:

Perhaps the great error is believing we're alone,
That the others have come and gone – a momentary blip –
When all along, space might be choc-full of traffic,
Bursting at the seams [. . .]

"A momentary blip" is entirely an error, not perhaps one. Inserting the phrase "momentary blip" sets up the idea of triviality, which is counter to what comes next: the idea of space teeming with life, an idea which the narrator wants to be the important and assumedly profound reality. Also, saying "a momentary blip" at the start of the section pulls the reader into the idea of time, which is not at all what the section is about. The section is about space. I am not sure why the phrase exists; it seems to me superfluous:

Perhaps the great error is believing we're alone,
That the others have come and gone
When all along, space might be choc-full of traffic,
Bursting at the seams [. . .]

Perhaps pacing? Considering it is prose, the argument is at best weak.

It is an instance of poor ideational control, a more severe case of which comes at the end of the stanza. The stanza spends its lines developing an idea of "space [. . .] choc-full of traffic"; space "bursting at the seams with energy"; of life "flush against us"; of peoples "setting solid feet down on planets everywhere." In conjunction with the opening line, it establishes the idea of a universe overfilled with life, a universe with life everywhere, life moving everywhere – "space choc-full of traffic," spaceships flying everywhere

But that is not where the poem wants to go. The poem wants to get to the end of the second stanza:

[I want it to be . . . bedlam . . .]
So that I might be sitting now beside my father
As he raises a lit match to the bowl of his pipe
For the first time in the winter of 1959.

The aim of the poem is (ostensibly) to build the idea that people inherently live in isolation, but if only the world were teeming with life, then there would be the possibility of connections like the one she imagines within the moment in 1959. How does the poem get from an overpopulated fish tank to everyone in isolation? By ignoring the first part and declaring the new idea by fiat:

Perhaps the great error is believing we're alone,
That the others have come and gone
When all along, space might be choc-full of traffic,
Bursting at the seams with energy we neither feel
Nor see, flush against us, living, dying, deciding,
Setting solid feet down on planets everywhere,
Bowing to the great stars that command, pitching stones
At whatever are their moons. They live wondering
If they are the only ones
[. . .]

(My emphasis.) Hopefully you see the contradiction created by the language. The stanza moves from "choc-full of traffic" to "they live wondering if they are the only ones." Two non-compatible ideas are at play: one of space teeming with life; one of space that has isolated moments of life. And there we see a possible purpose for "isolated blips" . . . . except it is not isolated blips, it is momentary blips. Not space, but time. There is an error in word choice (if we are to save the phrase). Though, it is not the only error: there is also "traffic" – which implies movement, which carries the idea of movement across space, from planet to planet –; there is "bursting at the seams" – which is counter to any thought of isolation –, and with "setting solid feet down on planets everywhere" which in context also speaks of movement from planet to planet, from star to star.

The entire universe is teeming with life moving everywhere, traffic everywhere, "flush against us" and yet "they live wondering if they are the only ones"? Poor ideational control; poor unity across the text as a whole. It is thinking in sequence, not in collection. (When it comes to it, can you connect the bit about "maybe the dead" to the opening or to the end?) I can see how "pitching stones at whatever are their moons" is an attempt to generate the idea of people who have yet to leave their planets. Unfortunately, nothing in the six lines previous gives us that context, that we are to read these peoples as being "isolated blips", as being not space but only planets full of traffic, of solid feet down on their planets and not planets everywhere. Notice the grammar: in the phrase "setting solid feet down on planets everywhere" the word "everywhere" gives expansiveness to where they are setting down their feet. Each subject sets their feet down not only on their "here" (their one planet) but "everywhere" (planets all over the place).

 

The worst stanza as for ideational control is the fourth. (The best is the second, which is a decent piece of writing, though not free of weaknesses.) There is a lot to explore in stanza 4.

First, we have to confront the description of the sequence in 2001, and for two reasons: accuracy and context.

Accuracy. I have no doubt Smith has by now had the errors pointed out to her (at least I hope so), but they do need to be presented here. The journey in the ship is not the "last scenes" of the film. It is followed by the sequence in the rooms where Dave Bowman is aging, and then by the final sequence of the starchild. Which is no small thing, as the poem twice speaks "in those last scenes," giving emphasis to that they are the last scenes. ("Ending scenes" would have worked better, though still not great.) It is also no small deal in that the idea of the starchild moves contrarily to the ending of the section. (But we are here only about accuracy, so belay that for the moment.)

Within the sequence of 2001, the light that "unfurls" can – and should – not be called "orgasmic": it is geometric, which presents a very different idea than "orgasmic." But the worst errors:

In those last scenes, as he floats
Above Jupiter's cast canyons and seas,
Over lava strewn plains [etc.]

Jupiter is a gas giant. There are no canyons and seas, there are no lava strewn plains. Nor is Bowman "floating": he is hurtling; at best cruising. Also, he is not even at Jupiter any more: he is inside the floating monolith.

Finally, the most emphatic error:

Over lava strewn plains and mountains
Packed in ice, that whole time, he doesn't blink.

It is the culmination of the grammar of the whole of the beginning of the section: it all rhetorically leads up and points to the statement "he doesn't blink." Only, he does. In fact, the camera zooms in on one eye blinking, and does so repeatedly.[FN] Curiously, after the long lead-up to "he doesn't blink," there is nothing done with the idea. Even if we take the idea metaphorically, something in the manner of "he doesn't flinch" (which also is not substantiated by viewing the film), to what end within the poem? The section abandons the thought as soon as it is presented and runs instead to questions: "Who knows what blazes through his mind?"

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[FN] It might also be pointed out that the phrase "My god, it's full of stars" does not occur in the film 2001. It it heard in 2010. Though, in that it is in the book 2001, and only in the title of the poem, I do not consider it that big of an issue. Smith points out these facts in an endnote to the poem.
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First of all, yes, it is varyingly problematic to get the facts wrong in your texts. Sometimes it is not so important. Sometimes it is of zero importance. Here, it is centrally important because what the poem is doing in this moment is describing, stating what is on the screen during that particular part of the movie. It is making a declaration of accuracy, and then getting the facts wrong. That is not good.

Context. The name of the book is "Life on Mars," after the David Bowie song "Life on Mars?" The cover picture is an astronomical image. The second poem is called "Sci-Fi." There are other references to Bowie, who wrote songs with science fiction themes, and references to those songs. The book is playing for a science fiction angle (at least through the first part), and yet the book makes errors in statement and description about one of most iconic and highly regarded films of science fiction, and on top of it gets basic facts about Jupiter incorrect. My gut response, my gut interpretation, is that of a text wanting to play at science fiction but not wanting to work at it, not wanting to make the effort to ground the text fully in science fiction. It leads off with a poem called "Sci-Fi" in apparent statement of theme, but my gut response is that, in the end, it only ever comes off half-assed to that end.

 

In reading and re-reading (and re-reading) Life on Mars, my primary response to it was one of lack of trust. This is the end of Coleridge's footnote:

I had long before detected the defects in [Gray's] "the Bard;" but "the Elegy" I had considered as proof against all fair attacks; and to this day I cannot read either, without delight, and a portion of enthusiasm. At all events, whatever pleasure I may have lost by the clearer perception of the faults in certain passages, has been more than repaid to me, by the additional delight with which I read the remainder.

Coleridge is admitting that there are flaws such as he described above to be found in Gray's poetry, but he can nonetheless enjoy the poems despite those flaws because the flaws are minor in compared to the works as a whole. I would describe the situation as being one of trust: when I read through a sophisticated poetic work, that work establishes that I can trust it, that when I stumble, when I find an issue, I can up front assume that it is probably an issue on my behalf, and I should pause and give the text more thought to find where I was misreading. I can trust the integrity of the text and from that trust the text garners my willingness to look at where I may have misread. Where I can find no such misreading and I confirm that the moment was in fact a flaw, I can yet trust that such flaws are minor things, they they do not speak against the integrity or genuineness of the work, and can be safely overlooked.

Life on Mars never generated such trust with me. It quickly became apparent to me that for most part, where I stumbled in the reading, where I noticed contradictions or strange wordings or shifts in meaning or clumsiness in sound it would not be that I was misreading. When the text felt thin for empty abstractions, it would not be that those abstractions would be later given body. It would almost always be that the text lacked integrity, lacked unity and control. As such, when there were moments where it may I have been that I was indeed misreading (for example, the last line of part 2 of "My God, It's Full of Stars), it was only by deciding to write this post that motivated me to put effort into understanding the poem, not the book itself. By the end of section one, I lacked what Coleridge describes: an expectation that whatever faults were found, what ever stumbles I endured, would be repaid by the positives of the text.

It can be asked, and should be pondered, what kind of confidence can be generated by a poem (such as section 3) that gives such effort to building up to a point ("he doesn't blink"), drops the point, and leaves the reader only with vague, unanswered if not unanswerable questions?

Who knows what blazes through his mind?
Is it still his life he moves through, or does
That end at the end of what he can name?

Fundamental prose writing: do not ask a question unless you are going to answer it. Or, if like with these posts, the point of the question is pedagogical or exploratory. Unfortunately, questions like those asked in "Life on Mars" – and too often do its poems revert to a rhetoric of such questions – lack what is needed for that pedagogical, exploratory prompting: a grounding. When they are asked in Life on Mars, as here in "My God," they are abstractions cast out into the air with barely enough associated meaning even to anchor the questions to the surrounding text, never mind about any answers. They are empty phrasings, a pop poetry convention that supplants the efforts of ideational exploration within the poem with a pseudo-philosophical gimmick.

When I read "Who knows what blazes through his mind?" my only thought is "if you cannot be bothered to give me an idea of what you think 'blazes through his mind', why the hell am I reading this poem? Why read the poem if I am doing all the work?" There is the workshop idea of "exploding the poem" or "exploding the text": which, I have to say, is one of the few useful workshop ideas I have come across. Question like the above generally mark places where the author should have been exploding the text. They are almost always lazy substitutes for substance.

Now, "My God" does have one more stanza, which can (with a squint) be read to be responding to those questions:

On set, it's shot after shot till Kubrick is happy,
Then the costumes go back on their racks
And the great gleaming set goes black.

Except it is in the end not answering the questions but restating them. Or, it is answering them with a nul. What is going on in Bowman's mind? Nothing. In fact, Bowman is nothing.

And perhaps to some that sounds like a profound closing, but it is far from it. It is quite trite. And worse, one that ignores, yet again, everything that comes before it. (Even, considering the whys behind Kubrick's "shot after shot" method, ignoring even itself.) For what is 2001 about? In one part ascension beyond technology into a greater being within the cosmos. In context of the poem, stating the closing of the set as some gesture toward the emptiness of the technological or even creative endeavor, or as the "on earth" reality against the "on screen" fantasy, misses the point of what is on screen, of what is the actual "last scene" of the movie: the starchild. The beautiful. The very point and culmination not only of the movie but also of the "fantasy" of the movie. In fact, it is to miss the point of its own containing medium. Or perhaps it is to present it: what is going on in the mind of this poem? Nothing. It is only flashing lights.

 

One final point to close off the poem. Something to ponder within the idea of ideational control. One of the most important elements of ideational control is leaving out what does not belong. One of the glaring examples in the book is the second stanza of the third part of "The Speed of Belief", which completely clashes structurally with every other stanza (who are identical in their structures), and gives ruin to what otherwise a clever poem. It should have been left out. But here, in "My God, It's Full of Stars," it is at the end of the fifth part:

We learned new words for things. The decade changed.

The first few pictures came back blurred, and I felt ashamed
For all the cheerful engineers, my father and his tribe.
The second time,
The optics jibed. We say to the edge of all there is –

I emphasized the part to which I am referring. (You should read the whole section to get my point.) The question: is that emphasized part at all necessary to the poem? Does that idea belong in the poem? Is there any justification for that idea being in the poem beyond "well, but that's how it happened" (which is never justification for anything being in a poem)? It puts an idea into the poem that does not belong, that has no purpose. And leaving out what has no purpose is just as much part of ideational control as is putting in what does.

 


 

Note 1: Section 2 of Life on Mars is written in memorium of Smith's father. To be honest, I find the subject of the passing of one's father to have become so overworked in pop poetry that it should be removed from the pool of standard subjects. Opening a book of poems and finding such a poem usually triggers an immediate closing of that book. Usually there is much more than subject matter to warrant the closing.

I say this to point out an exception to the trend, the opening section of Gjertrude Schnackenberg's Portraits and Elegies (also in Supernatural Love, which collects her first three books, and which I also picked up at said used bookstore just prior to finding Life on Mars). The section is a series of twelve poems, collectively titled "Laughing with One Eye."

 

Note 2: There seems to be a lot of "likes" in Life on Mars. I mention this because for the past few weeks I have been paying attention as I read to the use of similes in poetry. I have found – and this is wholly observational, not a scientific study – that the more control a writer demonstrates over their language, the less similes appear. (In most major poets they rarely appear.) I myself generally avoid similes as a personal preference, and consider their appearance a signal of weakness in my writing. Though, the attention I am paying now is not about weakness but about use: it seems to me that stronger writers tend to use similes to a particular end. But I leave it at that for now.

There are two in "Challenger," though I need only one for this exploration:

[. . .] She's like a kettle about to blow.
All that steam anxious to rise and go.

Yes, rather hack phrase there. My point here is only about the "like." Here's the question: does removing the "like" make the text sound stronger of voice?

[. . .] She's a kettle about to blow.
All that steam anxious to rise and go.

Again, mostly observational, but it seems that similes, except in that small context, are equivocating things, and usually weaken – unnecessarily – a text. The exceptions, where a simile shows strength, and the difference in usage is what piquing my interests. The line that began this is a line from Tom Waits's "Swordfishtrombone": "A pair of legs that opened up like butterfly wings." What I think is significant to the line is that the "like" is not coupled with a form of "to be."

All just observations and explorations. Perhaps I will return to this in another post.

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