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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, December 1, 2015

Review: Poetry Magazine (Oct. 2015) – Part IV: Rae Armantrout, Cynthia Cruz

The October 2015 issue of Poetry Magazine can be found here.

links to individual texts:
Rae Armantrout, "Background Information"
Rae Armantrout, "Object Lesson"
Cynthia Cruz, "Midnight Office"
— headers to the sections are also links to the texts

 


the other posts in this series


 

the shape of verse and pop-poetic convention

 

– editing, with a little added content, Apr. 4, 2016

 

Continuing with my review of the Oct. 2015 Poetry Magazine, I will in this post first finish covering Rae Armantrout, with her structurally similar offerings, "Background Information" and "Object Lesson," and then reach ahead to pull in another, to appearances structurally similar work, Cynthia Cruz's "Midnight Office."

These works offer opportunity to explore a commonly seen genre of pop verse: a genre of visual construction, not of word choice. Hopefully it will also offer some opportunity to explore a method of analysis: taking the material and ideational aspects at first independently and then together. It is fairly easy to demonstrate arbitrary line breaks with texts of larger stanzas and relatively consistent line lengths, as with the works in the previous posts of this series. It is a more difficult task with works such as these, in which the form derives more from a convention that governs the work in its full length rather than a convention that covers but one or a few lines at a time. This convention derives from the works of writers like William Carlos Williams, Robert Creeley, Denise Levertov, and perhaps also Charles Olson. Or, at least, when I hear this type of verse defended, it is usually through appeals to members of that line of U.S. verse.[FN] In contemporary verse, even as far back as verse in the 70s and 80s (as with L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E), I rarely see reason not to say the form is conventional or artificially derived: the text, as runs the convention, is manipulated to look a certain way, not shaped out of the text itself. That is the central question being explored in this post, with these three works: is the shape written to convention or crafted to poetic ends? The answer is not always clear, and the third text will give demonstration of that. In writing problems in the text are not always – indeed are only infrequently – clear cut issues. Most of the time it is not the error itself that mars a text, but the effect the error has on a reader. It creates an issue of confidence, an issue of whether the reader can continue in faith that the text is indeed a well-written text. Related to this, it must be noted that though a work may be poorly written in terms of ideation, syntax, etc., that does not necessarily mean the form of the work was not crafted toward the ends of a poetic whole. That is, sometimes intent is betrayed by the result – which adds a second complication to analysis.

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[FN] That is in no way a complete list: for example, I could perhaps add H.D., if not other writers that came out of imagism. And then there is the issue as to how much of pop-trends like that spawned by L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E were derived from mimicking previous poetics or artificially from their theoretical claims. That is why I speak only to those appeals to authority that I have myself heard. The amount of bad verse written in the name of, say, Robert Creeley – someone whose verse itself is of questionable merit – is a lot. But the sources of conventionality may not be so recent. Indeed, many of the bad habits of contemporary free verse writers were picked up by pop–poetry culture not all that long after the rise of Pound's and Eliot's popularity. The names offered are merely the names I have most frequently heard in defense of works structured like the works here being examined.

Denise Levertov may be perfect example to the point. She is often described as a writer whose career consisted in the majority of imitating the style of first this writer then the next. In the degree that that is true, and in the degree that subsequent writers found inspiration in her, she should be put at the fore in the list of writers whose works established the conventions that run through contemporary pop poetry. I personally find Levertov to be one of the most overrated of writers in post-war, U.S. literature, and believe she would have been mostly side-barred by now in the history of U.S. verse if she was not a woman. Ironically, I have been led to wonder at times whether Levertov's fame took attention away from the far more deserving, and far far more sophisticated and talented, H.D.

************************

There is also a third complication, one that runs through not only this series on Poetry Magazine but through the whole of the PDC project: it is far more difficult to critically speak to works that are poorly written than it is to works that are very well written. Though one might not think so, it can be surprisingly difficult to demonstrate that a work is indeed bad or trivial writing – which is to say not good, not meritable writing – when the characteristics of the work are so familiar to readers due to their being often-seen conventions in pop poetry.

Success here on my part will lie in demonstrating that the resulting lines and stanzas are indeed ineffective toward creating a poetic whole, whatever the degree of sophistication: or, at least, bringing that question into an active exploration. I don't think I need to speak to the commonness of this particular form of free verse: one need only look about.

My method will be to first divide the text under consideration into its two aspects, the ideational and the material. I will begin with the ideational content, examining the sentences and phrases that constitute the works as sentences and phrases alone to judge their value and merit – if within the artificially constructed form of straight prose. Then I intend to examine the text from the material side, looking for justification and organization in how they are presented upon the page. Finally, I will bring them together to ask whether the latter contributes to the former toward the making of a greater whole, or whether the latter is merely a framework onto which the sentences and phrases are nailed, which is to say a mere convention. Of course, no battle plan survives contact with the enemy; and, how much I am able to stick to that plan depends entirely on what the texts themselves offer.

 

 

"Background Information"

 

Taking the works in order, I begin with Armantrout's "Background Information." As stated, I will start with the ideational, artificially divorced from form. The text, written as prose, is as follows:

1
There's a lot going on in "the" zombie apocalypse. But wouldn't she recognize that her mother was a zombie? I mean zombies are a thing.

2
The last thing she did was point to one corner of the ceiling with a horrified stare. The nurse called this "a seizure." As if words drained experience of content and continued to accumulate. As if words were sealed containers stored for safe keeping.

3
The background is everything that, for now, can be safely ignored

And immediately, with part 1, we are confronted with the reality of contemporary verse, and one of the prevalent difficulties in "critiquing" contemporary verse. The text opens with such a ridiculous trio of sentences that I am, at the gun, not at all sure how to approach them. I could point to moments. For example, there is the very questionable use of quotations marks: "the" zombie apocalypse, as opposed to the other, pretender zombie apocalypses? There is also yet another misused "but." (See the second post in this series.) Less interestingly, there is the missing comma after "I mean" (in all three of her works, Armantrout seems to be sloppy with her use of grammar). Those are moments that could be expanded with some effort and allowable contrivance. However, this section of the text cannot in honesty ever get past the far more fundamental question of what would lead a person to consider these three sentences worth keeping as a group, never mind worth submitting. And as regards actual publication, the question reaches absurdity. For a work found in a supposedly meritable book of verse (or, at least, a book of verse that makes claim to merit), these three sentences are stupifyingly atrocious writing. Beyond that, I am not sure there is anything that can be said or that should be said. I've said it before and I'll say it again: these sentences are not clever, are not in some way "poetic": they are bad writing, and nothing but bad writing. Nothing more can be said about them.

Skipping to the third part, we have a sentence that suggests that the writer was not thinking out the words on the page. Here's the question: can you come up with a context in which a "background" is defined as that which is ignored? A background in a stage performance is part of the performance: even in the most sparse of stage settings, it is yet part of the presentation. That which is meant to be ignored, or that which can be ignored, is not background but outside, off stage, not part of the production at all. The background may be in the back, but it is still ground.

But, then, the "success" of the sentence within pop-poetic culture leans not upon its sense but upon it being one of those quippy, pseudo-philosophical, pop-poetic closing lines. Did you notice the similarity to the closing sentence of “Autobiographical Fragment” in the last post?

The background is everything that, for now, can be safely ignored
When I grew restless in the interior, the exterior gave.

They are both an appeal to a convention: they are not meant to be read; they are meant to be recognized.

Part 2 of the text starts off safely, though by the third sentence the text has again lost control. I cannot make sense of

As if words [. . .] continued to accumulate

within the context of the work (to what degree the work generates an overall context). Then there is the semantic instability within

As if words drained [and] accumulate[d]

which is not where it ends, as not only do words "drain" and "accumulate," but they also are "sealed containers"; and not only do they "drain experience of content" but they are yet "stored for safe keeping." No sense can be found here except through the reader shrinking the scope of their reading to the most limited of contexts: one even smaller than the sentence itself. But, then, is that not the nature of pop-poetics: see the moment and not the whole?

Because of the quality of the ideational side of "Background Information," the possibility of examination of the material aspect – the verse – is limited. In sophisticated writing the material and the ideational cannot be separated: indeed, that unity is a mark of sophistication in writing. Though, in unsophisticated writing the effect of the one upon the other still exists, for when the quality of the ideational is so poor the material cannot but also suffer. Yet, in pop-poetry, where the standards for technical ability seems so low as to be imperceptible – or ignorable – verse can yet pass muster, as it were, by appealing to simplicity or, more importantly, convention. The general shape of "Background Information" works to that end: it is written to look like pop poetry. It is wholly conventional, which is to say it is shaped to look like one of the ways in which free verse is supposed to be shaped. Again, pop poetry is not meant to be read; it is meant to be recognized. That is the nature, purpose, and end of convention and established genre: passive reading, not active reading.

Looking at "Background Information,” it is difficult to find justification for the layout of the work besides that of pop-poetic convention: even when the line breaks are crafted out of the ideational aspect.

The background
is everything

that, for now,
can be safely

ignored

That is crafted to the pop-poetic trope of the one word last line, another trope so trite that it should be actively avoided. Can a reader find reason for the small lines except in conventionality? To ask the question from the other side, is there any reason not to write the lines in some other way?

The background
is everything that, for now,
can be safely ignored.

The background
is everything that
for now
can be safely ignored.

The background is everything
that can, for now, be safely ignored.

Is there any significant change to the text created by using any of these options outside of that the text would no longer look like a recognizable form of free verse? Of course, the exploration is hindered by the awkwardness of the sentence,

The background is that which can be safely ignored.
The background is that which can – for now – be safely ignored.

but the text is poor prose throughout. Which, as with the ideational, makes exploration of the material aspect of the text difficult: even this simple exploration requires plucking the sentence out of its context to create any analytical focus. Indeed, with "Background Information," there is no true 'context' to be found in the text since the text is so ideationally disjointed and so poorly written.

Which does in itself point to that often seen purpose of pop-poetic form: hiding the true nature of the text from the reader, and, perhaps also, the writer. Perhaps this visual comparison will suffice to show how the line and stanza breaks work in "Background Information" – and other texts of this nature – to hide the poor writing from the reader. A simple question: is the text easier to read when written this way:

1
There's a lot going on in "the" zombie apocalypse.
But wouldn't she recognize that her mother was a zombie?
I mean zombies are a thing.

2
The last thing she did was point to one corner of the ceiling
          with a horrified stare.
The nurse called this "a seizure."
As if words drained experience of content
          and continued to accumulate.
As if words were sealed containers stored for safe keeping.

3
The background is everything that, for now,
          can be safely ignored

If it is easier to read, is should then also be easier to see the many problems with the text.

What would be the response to this in a workshop?

What would be the response to this in a prose workshop?

Should not the answer to the latter play into the answer in the former?

Before moving on, a word should be offered on that the text is made of three parts, and the three parts are to be read as a single complex of ideas. That is something that might be worth exploring, as writing verse in parts offers more difficulty to creating a successful work than one might think. Saying that from the other side, writing a verse in parts is very often used as a lazy way to abut sections of a disjointed text. Here, however, with the ideation within the three parts such a mess, I do not believe there is anything of value that can be found in looking at the text as a whole. As with most pop-poetry, this text is not meant to be read as a whole except shallowly.

 

 

"Object Lesson"

 

Taking up Armantrout's final work within the Poetry issue, we begin the same way, with the ideational first. The sentences flow into each other, and I see no need or cause to break the sections into more than one paragraph each.

1.
That a memory, caught and mounted for permanent display, is not much like anything that happens can't be surprising. But where does that leave us? Night at the Museum, the set pieces in their comic ignorance of one another take the stage.

2
In this series, he tosses her on the bed like laundry as she struggles irrelevantly against the stickiness of tape and it's just this: the blind persistence of her struggle and his (feigned?) indifference, the way each proceeds, blinkered and mechanical, into whatever this recreates.

(I add the missing period at the end.) The two parts differ in that first part is, as with "Background Information," concatenated sentences, while the second is a single, extended sentence. As such, the second part possesses a unity the first lacks.

In my reading, the first part quickly falls apart. The first sentence felt off to me at the first read, but then should not

That a memory [. . .] is not much like anything that happens

be written

That a memory [. . .] is not much like anything that happened

so that the past tense context of "memory" is maintained? The idea that a memory is not like anything that might possibly happen is simply untrue, and I am sure it is not the intended point, which would be that memory is not defined by the actual past. (I could be wrong on this, but the text seems to point to that reading and correction.)

Beyond the issue of word choice, give thought to that sentence:

That a memory [. . .] is not much like anything that happens can't be surprising.

The question: if it "can't be surprising," why take the time – why take up my time as a reader – to point it out? In that construction, the most important part of the sentence is not the information but the correction, the "that can't be surprising." But, since that's the end of the thought, since nothing is done with the correction, the sentence marks itself as being filler material, narrative padding, which followed by yet more of the same.

But where does that leave us?

The text has spent two sentences saying mostly nothing. Yes, the first sentence is establishing an idea that is meant to be carried into part 2. Except, could it not be said in a better way? Ask it this way: what is the difference between (correcting the wording and punctuation)

That a memory, caught and mounted for permanent display, is not much like anything that happened, can't be surprising.

and

Memory is not what happened.

outside of the first carrying a lot of unnecessary words in the saying and the second putting the focus where it belongs, on memory, not "can't be surprising"? I would not call those first sentences, no matter how it might be broken up into lines, something profound, or even terribly interesting, or even worth taking from a first draft to a second. They are simply too empty.

Also worth noting: assuming that the idea of "memory is not what happened" is supposed to be carried into the second section, the text leaves all the work of that carrying up to the reader. It is simply too abstract in part 1; it fails to generate any real ideation or energy, it merely points to ideation that the reader can then develop on their own. This is laziness on the part of the writer. Consider a text that is first a scene of some sort, wholly narrative in the telling, which is then followed up by the statement "but memory is not what happened." I'll manufacture an example. Remember, this is the entirety of the resulting text.

I stuffed a shirt or two into my old carpet-bag, tucked it under my arm, and started for Cape Horn and the Pacific. Quitting the good city of old Manhatto, I duly arrived in New Bedford. It was a Saturday night in December. Much was I disappointed upon learning that the little packet for Nantucket had already sailed, and that no way of reaching that place would offer, till the following Monday.

But memory is not what happened.

That 'closing' sentence is not a close at all: it is the opening up of a contrast. There is A, what is presented in the narrative, and then the statement that A may not be A. To which the reader then goes, "Ok, then, show me how and show me why it is important." The line is not the closing of a text but the opening of one. Saying "A may not be A" without then doing something with the statement is creative laziness. Reversing the order, as is done in "Object Lesson," does not magically change the situation.

Memory is not what happened.

He tosses her on the bed, like laundry, as she struggles irrelevantly [etc.].

The writer has still left the reader all of the work. But: "memory is not what happened," or in the original text,

That a memory, caught and mounted for permanent display, is not much like anything that happened, can't be surprising.

is another example of a pop-poetic, faux-philosophical line. Again, it is not meant to be read, it is meant to be recognized; and when it is recognized, the text is cued as being of the nature of how "poetry" is written today. After which the passively receptive audience dutifully says "how poignantly observant" and pats their own pack at their successful participation in the charade.

The empty opening lines is followed by an empty cultural reference:

Night at the Museum, the set pieces in their comic ignorance of one another take the stage.

That's not how I remember that movie. The various, magically animated characters in Night at the Museum are all aware of each other's existence: indeed, much of the plot depends on their being aware of – and engaging with – each other. Plus, is not "the set pieces [. . .] take the stage" an A = A statement? Aren't set pieces in a museum "set pieces" because they are, essentially, on a stage? Indeed, what displays in a museum are not on a stage of one sort or another? Again, the sentence may "sound" of value, but once actually read, it becomes but empty abstractions and poor writing.[FN]

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[FN] There is also prompted here the question of the value of using a cultural reference that has a very short life span. But, I will save that question for another time.
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Under analysis, the part 1 of the text falls apart as quickly and nearly as messily as did all the concatenations in "Background." The second part of "Object Lesson" has a couple of advantages over the first: it is a single sentence, so it avoids the concatenations; and it is narrative in nature, so it (mostly) avoids empty abstractions. It does still have some problems in the writing, weaknesses that reveal the text as being not-all-that-good prose. For one, "irrelevantly" seems to me a poorly chosen word. I question whether the word should have been ineffectively. That the woman struggles "irrelevantly" does not mean that she does not succeed in escaping the tape, it means the struggle was irrelevant to someone, that someone being either the man in the narrative or the reader of the text (or both). If the latter, why is it said? If the former, what then is so important about the tape as to have it in the scene? Neither of these questions finds answer in the text. Indeed, the statement that "the blind persistence" "is just this" explicitly means it is not at all irrelevant.

As well, the parenthetical interjection "(feigned?)" clashes semantically with the sentence into which it is interjected. Saying that indifference is feigned means that the person is not at all indifferent but is pretending to be so. But then can the woman's struggles be irrelevant when the man is interested in them? Also, how can a person be not indifferent to something to which they are blinkered?

Those are minor points that speak mostly to the weakness of the writing. What the second section offers to this post as a whole lays more in the material, the verse aspect, so I will move to that by way of pointing to the appearance, again, of the a text closing with yet another faux-philosophical, quippy, final phrase

the way each proceeds,
blinkered and mechanical,

into whatever
this recreates.

(I add the missing period), and yet another, essentially empty abstraction.

Ultimately, the argument as to why the verse aspects of "Object Lesson" are pop-poetic in nature is the same as that offered through "Background Information": in brief, is there any reason why the text could not be written differently except for that it would then look different and as such look like what pop poetry is supposed to look like today? So rather than repeating that same argument, I will take advantage of this electric format, and experiment, to exploration of the quality and nature of the verse-form in the original work. The opportunity exists here mostly because of the second part's being an extended sentence. I begin with the raw material of the words as prose.

In this series, he tosses her on the bed like laundry as she struggles irrelevantly against the stickiness of tape and it's just this: the blind persistence of her struggle and his (feigned?)" indifference, the way each proceeds, blinkered and mechanical, into whatever this recreates.

First let me put in line breaks where the sentence naturally breaks apart (one possible way):

In this series,
he tosses her on the bed like laundry
as she struggles irrelevantly against the stickiness of tape
and it's just this: the blind persistence
of her struggle and his (feigned?) indifference,
the way each proceeds, blinkered and mechanical,
into whatever this recreates.

which, to me is an immediate improvement. There at least appears to be a purpose behind the breaking of the lines, if not yet an internally generated crafting of the lines. From here, I'll simply play. First, a little trimming and temporary punctuation.

In this series:
He tosses her on the bed like laundry.
She struggles irrelevantly against the stickiness of tape.
And it's just this:
the blind persistence of her struggle and his (feigned?) indifference,
the way each proceeds, blinkered and mechanical,
into whatever this recreates.

Is "In this series" necessary, considering (1) the introduction of the idea in part 1, and (2) the recognition that the break in parts serves itself as transition? Is "(feigned?) doing anything of value? I answer no to both questions

He tosses her on the bed like laundry.
She struggles irrelevantly against the stickiness of tape.
And it's just this:
the blind persistence of her struggle and his indifference,
the way each proceeds, blinkered and mechanical,
into whatever this recreates.

"Of her struggle" is redundant; plus, for the ideational clash, I change "irrelevant."

He tosses her on the bed like laundry.
She struggles ineffectively against the stickiness of tape.
And it's just this:
her blind persistence and his indifference,
the way each proceeds, blinkered and mechanical,
into whatever this recreates.

Yet, when read against "blind persistence," "ineffective" is still the wrong word. What is needed is something that does indeed speak to the irrelevance of her struggle, but in a way that speaks both that the struggles are irrelevant against the strength of the tape and that they are irrelevant in a context greater than the strength of the tape. Plus, doesn't "his indifference" only repeat abstractly what was already conveyed in "like laundry"? Now comes not only trimming, but reworking to the ends of condensing the text:

Her aped dumb show of struggle;
his folding through the duct-taped pile of laundry;
the way each proceeds, blinkered and mechanical,
into whatever this recreates.

Note that

her aped dumb show of struggle

is not the same as

the aped dumb show of her struggle

for in the latter there is still significance to her actual, physical struggle, but it is removed from significance by way of a layer of pantomime.

It should be "aping," though, shouldn't it.

Her aping dumb show of struggle;
his folding through the duct-taped pile of laundry;
the way each proceeds, blinkered and mechanical,
into whatever this recreates.

The last two lines retreat into the abstract and as such should be killed. Yet, there are three ideas within the lines that ask for attention: (1) the two persons being blinded of (or are blind to) each other; (2) the mechanical aspect; (3) the idea of recreation. The idea of the two being blinded to each other (if not also to the scene as a whole) is already carried by the divorce-from-reality implied in "aping" and "pile of laundry." The mechanical aspect is also present through much the same way; however, there is missing is the repetitiveness of the mechanical, that repetitiveness implied in the "re-" of "recreate." I have the want to bring into the text the idea of "again," preferably not through the actual word again or a synonym thereof. In part 1 of the original text I find the phrase "permanent display," which carries the idea wonderfully. As well, it brings into this text the museum/stage idea.

On permanent display:
her aping dumb show of struggle;
his folding through the duct-taped pile of laundry.

Is switching the order better? Is "pile of" necessary?

On permanent display:
his folding through the duct-taped laundry;
her aping dumb show of struggle.

The switching does come out for the better, for now the laundry idea is established before it is equated with the woman. I prefer removing the "of" for rhythm's sake.

On permanent display:
his folding through the duct-taped laundry;
her aping, dumb show struggle.

I kind of like that, actually, for a silly – if dark – little thing:

 
Night at the Museum

On permanent display:
his folding through the duct-taped laundry;
her aping, dumb show struggle.
 

Still missing is the "create" half of "recreate." But that is where I consider the word poorly chosen, as "re-create" goes against the intended, mechanical, repeating aspect of animatronics. "Reiterate" I believe is more to the intended point.

Anyway, just playing. The questions this playing prompts in its relation to the original text, the questions it prompts as regards analysis of both ideation and form, are:

(1) How much of the original text is empty wording; how much of that empty wording is due to it being poorly written and/or abstract prose?

(2) How much of the shape of the text, how much of the line breaks and stanza breaks revealed itself mostly irrelevant to the reading of the text? Did the form of the text create any influence on the steps taken? Or, during the steps taken, was there anything lost by abandoning the pop-poetic shape of the original text except for how the text looked?

I leave those questions open for pondering, as I want to move on. And, the next work speaks something to the answers.

 

 

"Midnight Office"

 

The final work under examination in this post is Cynthia Cruz's only entry in the October Poetry. As said at the start, I am pulling it forward, out of the order of the contents, because to appearances it is shaped (taking that word as noun or verb) similarly to the above two works. This work could also be considered an example of clothesline verse (as was examined in the previous post). Though, that may be as much an incidental likeness as not.

Since the first two texts were sufficient to establishing the ideas in play, though also because of the nature of the text, I will not split this text ideational first/material second, but will consider both at the same time.

"Midnight Office" is constituted mostly of short sentences, which will give its lines the appearance of having being broken as the sentences prompt rather than arbitrarily. Though, moments such as

The angel of Michael
Outside the garden
His circle of fire
Maddening around the tree.

still speaks to me of the desire for short lines overriding the flow of the text. Compare to what for me is a far more natural flow:

Outside the garden, the angel of Michael:
His circle of fire maddening around the tree.

This construction parallels, structurally, other stanzas:

The child is not dead.
She is sleeping.

and

He put the word
Back into her:
A heavy kind of music.

Is there any reason not to write that last one as two lines?

He put the word back into her:
A heavy kind of music.

While we're on it, why have a period breaking the first stanza, or breaking this stanza

Then she was free.
As we all are.

except for that the periods are aurally echoing that heavy pause in the other stanzas? But, is the period needed? Could not a comma with a line break – the latter doing most of the work – be sufficient to the task?

Then she was free,
As we are all free.

So, perhaps I am arguing myself out of the text being written to conventional shape as was seen with the Armantrout texts. For the most part, every stanza is a two-part thought: except, of course, lest we break from tradition, that pseudo-philosophical, final line.

The trees are not trees, anyway.

Shall we review?

The background is everything that, for now, can be safely ignored
When I grew restless in the interior, the exterior gave.
The trees are not trees, anyway.

Where the impulse to write to convention appears most strongly in the work is in the two stanzas that break from the couplet form.

The angel of Michael
Outside the garden
His circle of fire
Maddening around the tree.

He put the word
Back into her:
A heavy kind of music.

Both of these, as has been shown, can readily be written in a couplet form. Which prompts the question: what was the governing impulse with those two stanzas: the nature of the text as a whole, which so greatly speaks to wanting to be written in couplets, or the impulse to conventionality, which would explain the otherwise pointless – if not bad – break after the first line of stanza 4, and which would go far to explaining the aural choppiness of stanza 3?

Because of how the text looks on the screen (or page), because the stanzas break away from couplets at those two longer stanzas without any obvious reason other than keeping the lines short, the text looks to me as though written materially – at least in part – to pop-conventionality. Which is an important point: if a text reads like pop poetry, it is functionally pop poetry, whether it was actually written to pop-poetic conventions or not. It is a natural result of developing writing sophistication that, as one's development progresses, one's works will tend to not look like pop-poetry. Which speaks to the nature and purpose of pop poetry: as should be clear from the idea of"pop," pop-texts – be it verse, music, art, whatever – are intended to look and sound like each other, are intended to be familiar, are intended to be unchallenging, are intended to be passively read.

The observation works also to the development of sophistication, works also from the writer's side: in writing texts one should strive to avoid looking and reading like pop poetry, for only then can you trust that you are exploring the medium and not just mimicking the verse that is everywhere to be found.

With "Midnight Office," I am ultimately brought to question – especially with the third and fourth stanza, but not only there – whether the lines were written to the phrasing or whether the phrasing was written to the lines. Let me break the text into paragraphs, as prompted by the text. (This not the only way; but no one option offers more than any other.) I add or change punctuation as necessary, without changing the meaning.

The child is not dead. She is sleeping, gone from this world which is broken.

The angel of Michael [FN] outside the garden, his circle of fire maddening around the tree. He put the word back into her: a heavy kind of music.

Then she was free. As we all are.

All night I stood in the icy wind, praying for the storm to destroy me. But the wind blew through me like I was a hologram.

If you say I am a mystic, then fine: I'm a mystic. The trees are not trees, anyway.

The second paragraph points to the possible influence of pop conventionality in the writing of the text. As prose it works far better as a single sentence:

The angel of Michael outside the garden, his circle of fire maddening around the tree: he put the word back into her, a heavy kind of music.

And as found in the text, the lines read overly blunt, as though cut to length.

The angel of Michael
Outside the garden
His circle of fire
Maddening around the tree.

The sound of it echos nursery rhyme rhythm

the ANgel of MIchael
is OUTside the GARden
a CIRcle of FIRE and of FEAR

the ANgel of MIchael,
OUTside the GARden,
his CIRcle of FIRE

but the syntax, the clunky fourth line, and the other lines in the text push against that rhythm was the guiding measure. (Is there a geographical clash created by Micheal being outside  the garden, and yet his circle of fire is "around the tree," which, ostensibly, is inside the garden?)

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[FN] To note, I googled the phrase "angel of Michael" to see if it is used elsewhere, as it is a construction with which I am not familiar. It is used elsewhere. Though, the links did not eliminate the question in my mind as to whether there is in the phrase a meaning that distinguishes it from "the angel Michael."
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And here I am getting into the difficulty of contemporary verse: the more I narrow the field of examination, the easier it is for me to create justifications for an event.[FN] With that play with rhythm, I am now forcing my ear into hearing the text as rhythmic. And there is rhythm to be found. The opening two stanzas

the CHILD is not DEAD.
SHE is SLEEPing.

GONE from this WORLD
WHICH is BROKen.

are the same, rhythmically. The fourth stanza also has nice form.

he PUT the WORD
back INto HER:
a HEAVy KIND of MUsic.

But then there is that fourth line of the third stanza. And the fifth stanza shows no attention at all: it clunks

then SHE was FREE || as we ALL are.

because it is divided into a couplet and because the stanzas previously have set up the echo of a heavy pause before the final line. If it were but one line

then SHE was FREE as WE all ARE

it is a smoother read, but still somewhat awkward. But, these are abstract, quippy lines, and probably not written to being lines but written to sounding like the trope of faux-philosophical lines. The above rhythms look nice when isolated, but brought into the text of the whole poem, the idea of rhythm as guiding is difficult to sustain. Even within the above there are clashes, and the rhythms change from stanza to stanza. As such, I am not convinced as a reader that the lines were written to sound; though, I do permit the possibility that the writer's ear is strong enough to bring rhythm into play even when her verse mind is forcing phrases into lines that don't quite fit.

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[FN] Curiously, it may be said that with sophisticated verse the opposite is true. The more sophisticated the verse, the more reading the work as whole become essential and the more reading the work moment by moment can "reveal" problems that do not exist.
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In my working on this blog, it is my normal policy not to look up the authors of whatever text I'm examining, at least not until after I have written my critique (even then I only infrequently do). It is with questions such as this that I will break policy and look at other works by the same author to see if there is enough evidence to grant such benefit of the doubt. Looking at the other texts by Cruz on the Poetry Foundation site, I believe I am correct in granting that benefit. It does appear, in that small sample, that Cruz has a good ear for rhythm; although, the same sampling speaks also to a weakness in the crafting of lines. But the moment here goes to that second complication, as stated at the start of this post, where poor writing in the text at hand betrays the sophistication of the writer, where the writing is at odds with itself. This is for me such a case: there is evidence throughout that the writer has an ear for rhythm; there is also evidence throughout that the text lacks unity, lacks a flow between and occasionally within stanzas. The two work against each other, and analysis of the text becomes difficult because the smaller the section under analysis the more the text tends to speak the ear of the writer: which is a false path in analysis of the text as a whole: it is raising the part over the whole.

It is that a natural, prose phrasing of stanza 3 pushes against the short lines that makes me question what had the upper hand in guiding the crafting of the text as a whole: the text or pop conventionality. To explore the question [FN1], I explore the lines, experimenting with the longer lines prompted by the phrasing of the third stanza. For example:

The child is not dead; she is sleeping,
gone from this world which is broken.
Outside the garden, the angel of Michael,
his circle of fire maddening around the tree:
he put the word back into her, a heavy music.[FN2]

These are not bad lines: not terribly special, but not at all bad. Only, here, unlike with the Armantrout works, there is something lost in the rewrite: that emphasis upon ideation created by the couplets: specifically with those couplets that are made of paired thoughts. Writing the text as

The child is not dead; she is sleeping,
gone from this world which is broken.

creates a very different read than writing the text as

The child is not dead.
She is sleeping.

Gone from this world
which is broken.

Though, if it is to be couplets, then let it be couplets. Which is why I find the period after "dead" slightly in error. Bring in a semi-colon and it brings the two lines into greater identity. Plus, the second stanza reads as though one line was broken for the sole reason of having two lines. So:

The child is not dead;
she is sleeping.

Gone from this world,
this world which is broken.

I am reminded here of the moment from Paul Fussell's Poetic Form and Poetic Meter, to which I referred in my post on Tennyson's "Mariana").

The second technical difficulty of the Petrachan sonnet is connected with the "envelope" rhyme scheme of the two quatrains. By envelope we mean that the two "outside" rhymes (the a's) serve as an envelope or container of the internal couplet (the b's). Because of their logical as well as their sound relationships, ideally the phrases or clauses rhymed a should relate closely to each other, even though they are separated; and those within the envelope, those which comprise the couplet rhymes b, should exhibit an even closer semantic and logical relationship. The general critical principle, which follows from the axiom that a poem is organic and that everything in it must contribute to meaning, is that the rhyming of two contiquous lines demands a tighter logical unity between them than between two noncontiguous lines which rhyme. We expect the relation of the two lines of a couple to be logically very close, whereas the relation of the two rhyming lines in an abab quatrain does not arouse such rigorous expectations. (119-20, my emphasis)

The idea is both obvious and simple: if you are going to create a unit within a text, then the unit should carry its own identity. If you are going to break a stanza within a text, then the stanza should not be marked only by the break but also in that the stanza has its own identity, its own unity. If you are going to write a two line stanza, then the stanza should have an identity as "a two-line stanza," not merely "a stanza of two lines." The difference between the two – where a stanza reads as merely a stanza of two lines – is what creates the reading that the lines were governed not by the text as a whole but by external factors. In my longer-line exploration, above, I do not break the text into stanzas, because such breaks would be artificial: the text flows as a single unit. So there is something gained in the long lines as opposed to the short: a form of unity. But there is also something lost: the ideational effect of the two-line stanza, particularly, as here, two-lines that are two coupled thoughts.

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[FN1] Except with really bad or really good verse questions like this can often only be explored.

[FN2] To note, the original text was written with every line capitalized. When I break here from that it is not in critique of the practice, but solely to give visual aid to seeing the sentences within the rewritten lines.
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I prefer the short couplets of the original text to the longer-lined exploration; or, perhaps better said, I like the possibilities that are posited by the short couplets, possibilities that don't exist in the longer-lined exploration. The stanzas in "Midnight Office" are broken between thoughts, and for the most part have independent ideational identities. One good example is in how stanza 2 can succeed on its own even though it is a sentence fragment. However, there are then the next stanzas

The angel of Michael
Outside the garden
His circle of fire
Maddening around the tree.

He put the word
Back into her:
A heavy kind of music.

And, as said, it is here that my confidence in the work starts to break down. The cutting of stanza 4 into three lines reads to me as mostly arbitrary; and the entire construction of stanza 3 – not only the breaks but also the wording – reads to me as forced by the desire to have short lines. The use of a fragment does not work there as it did in the previous stanza. Remember: it is irrelevant whether it was so written or not: what is relevant is only how the text reads.

I am not terribly confident in "maddening," either; but, that's a small detail, and those I will save for the end.

Let's look again at the text written as prose.

The child is not dead. She is sleeping, gone from this world which is broken.

The angel of Michael [FN] outside the garden, his circle of fire maddening around the tree. He put the word back into her: a heavy kind of music.

Then she was free. As we all are.

All night I stood in the icy wind, praying for the storm to destroy me. But the wind blew through me like I was a hologram.

If you say I am a mystic, then fine: I'm a mystic. The trees are not trees, anyway.

The text breaks down into four sections: narrative, abstract statement, narrative, abstract statement.

The child is not dead. She is sleeping, gone from this world which is broken.

The angel of Michael [FN] outside the garden, his circle of fire maddening around the tree. He put the word back into her: a heavy kind of music.

Then she was free. As we all are.

All night I stood in the icy wind, praying for the storm to destroy me. But the wind blew through me like I was a hologram.

If you say I am a mystic, then fine: I'm a mystic. The trees are not trees, anyway.

This is what gives the text the feel of clothesline verse: the connections between the four sections are not wholly clear and not that strong outside of surface details and sentiments. Now, while I think it needs development, I like where the first section is going. "Gone from this world which is broken" establishes an idea of a pessimistic cosmology (seeing the world as either created flawed or having become flawed). The idea generated through "a heavy kind of music" adds an interesting depth – though still a not-fully developed depth – to that cosmological framework.

But that beginning is then wholly dropped: for what comes next is

Then she was free.
As we all are.

This error in writing is frequent in pop writing: the writer cannot resist falling into a faux-philosophical quip, even though the ideation contradicts – or more often is irrelevant to – the surrounding text. Here, it contradicts "this world which is broken," indeed, contradicts itself. If the dead girl is "then free," after death (whatever death may signify), after she is "gone from this world," then it makes no sense to say "we are all free." How can we all be free and yet the girl not have been free? The error arises though falling into pop-poetic trope, coupled with or created by the habit of settling for an abstract statement: brief, abstract statements are usually empty or dead ideationally, which opens them up to appeals to convention so as to give them substance, if false substance.

The same applies to the closing lines, also a retreat into abstraction and into what "sounds" like pop poetry.

If you say I am a mystic,
Then fine: I'm a mystic.

The trees are not trees, anyway.

I have no idea how the final line is clarifying the previous two. It's a lazy ending to the work. Most of the time abstraction is a mark of lazinesst in the writing: is far easier – and requires far less words – to make an abstract statement that to bring the ideas to life by embodying them within something concrete. A writing hint: whenever you find such abstract statements in your drafting, ask yourself: is this a lazy out? is it a quick, cheap way to escape the more difficult work of staying within the concrete?

The second narrative section comes off as disjointed because it changes subject entirely: the text is now about the speaker, no longer about the dead girl; and, the relation between the events happening to the speaker and the events that happened to the dead girl are not at all clear. That is why the poem reads like clothesline verse: four sections of dubious interconnectivity. (Though, I do not believe it was written from that convention.) That result may also inform how the poem appears to fall, visually, if only occasionally, into the habits of pop poetic convention: could the writer have been able to develop the idea of

If you say I am a mystic,
Then fine: I'm a mystic.

through concrete ideation without abandoning the two-line stanza form? or did the desire to keep the shape push the writer into the easy out of simple, abstract statement?

It is worth noting how the couplet form seems to work to hide the retreats into abstraction, especially in their paralleling in form the stronger stanzas that precede them. All in all an unfortunate final result, for opening ideas of the text are interesting ones, if, as said, not fully developed. If I had found those opening stanzas on their own, I would have thought them but notes to a larger project, not part of a finished work. (Another habit that plagues pop poetry: the willingness to leave ideas short and undeveloped.) Also, the idea of "fine: I'm a mystic" holds the possibility of some very interesting play when brought into engagement with those opening ideas. However, in the text as presented, the lines are too abstract, as such too disconnected, and the potential unused.

And I think I've about said all there is to say to the greater points that these three texts – in their similarity and dissimilarity – have to offer. A couple minor notes on "Midnight Office" to close.

As said, I question the use of "maddening." It feels like it was used because the writer like the word, not because of how it works in the text. "Hologram," however, does not all work. The reason lies in that there is no context in which a reader would naturally think a hologram and wind interacting: the inherent context of holograms are indoor as events. The idea of "a hologram in the wind" is simply too alien an idea to be used successfully within a simile. Plus, the idea of a hologram clashes with the concrete elements in the rest of the text, which are natural (or supernatural) in character, not scientific.

Finally, is there reason not to make these two lines aurally parallel?

If you say I am a mystic,
Then fine: I'm a mystic.

That is, to write them as:

If you say I am a mystic
Then fine, I am a mystic.

The colon is in error grammatically; and the work of the comma after the first “mystic” is performed by the word then.

If it is blue then it is blue.
If it is blue then, fine, it is blue.
If you say it is blue then, fine, it is blue.

But, the colon does create a strong pause which sits as substitute for the un-stressed syllable in the previous line.

if you SAY / i AM / a MYStic,
then FINE / : I'M / a MYStic.

It is another, curious example that speaks to me the conflict going on between the writer's ear and text itself. The colon makes for good sound, but it makes for clumsy writing.

2 comments:

  1. "The more sophisticated the verse, the more reading the work as whole become essential and the more reading the work moment by moment can 'reveal' problems that do not exist." Leaving aside the loaded word "sophisticated," how can problems be revealed that do not exist?

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    1. In writing the above, I had the thought to give example, but it would be too much a digression. Plus, while it will not be that difficult to find examples, it will be far more difficult to find examples that would work in a post, that I could explain in text.

      Though, now that you point, I will keep my eyes open. It could make for a worthwhile post.

      Thanks for the prompt.

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