Sunday, October 12, 2008

Effective Nonsense: POETRY in September

(Reflections on issues of POETRY magazine, September 2008).

In the September 2008 issue of POETRY, two poems by Alan Shapiro give effective expression to the myth that whatever is bourgeois, whatever is orderly, whatever contributes to the workings of nine-to-five polite society, must be phony, confining, and inimical to Real Life. The first of these two poems, "Gas Station Rest Room," goes to the underbelly of the beast and delights in its soils and smells -- words so evocative of their subject that I'd rather not re-read, much less quote them. But the graffiti there, in its furtive energy, seems to declare
is here at hand
and dark, and hell
is odorless; hell is bright and clean.
It's almost convincing, until you remember any graffiti you've seen lately, the angry or pathetic quality of the discourse there.

More true is Shapiro's other poem, "24/7," which seems to take place inside the convenience store that fronts that gas station restroom.
The one cashier is dozing --
head nodding, slack mouth open,
above the cover girl spread out before her on the counter
smiling up
with indiscriminate forgiveness
and compassion for everyone
who isn't her.
Other verses describe the laser beam of the scanner that "drifts free in the space that is the sum / of the cost of all the items that tonight / won't cross its path." There are "columns onto columns / under columns" of packed goods without
any trace
of bodies that have picked
packed unpacked and placed them just so
so as to draw bodies to the
pyramid of plums

Though to call a convenience store a "paradise of absence" is a little like shooting fish in a barrel, it makes me see the commonplace in a new way, especially at the end, when night "press[es] the giant black moth / of itself against the windows / of fluorescent blazing."

Both poems explore the feeling we all get looking at Hopper's paintings of urban alienation, especially "Night Hawks." Looking at that one, we are the giant black moth pressing up against the illuminated window. (Edward Hopper. Nighthawks, 1942. Oil on canvas; 33 1/8 x 60 in. (84.1 x 152.4 cm). The Art Institute of Chicago; Friends of American Art Collection.
Courtesy The Art Institute of Chicago

But as Shakespeare observed, nothing is good or ill but thinking makes it so. I know one pre-teen for whom every convenience store was paradise, a place of tantalizing choices where I could exert my power to choose -- by drawing a few quarters from my pocket.

The same issue of POETRY also includes whimsical self-portraits by Philip Larkin, some scrawled in the margins of the agenda for a library staff meeting. There's also another thought-provoking article by Clive James. "It is possible that Shakespeare spoiled us," he says, by cramming his plays with so many flashes of metaphor and "his Olympian playfulness." By contrast, the sonnets work more with "syntactical tricks ... to compress and energize plain prose statement." James takes issue with the notion that what's plain and clear in poetry must be simple-minded.

The next best thing to reading a poem and getting it, is reading someone else's writing that open up the art to you.

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