Archive

Tag Archives: criticism

Louder Than A Bomb is the name of a scholastic slam poetry competition in Chicago. It’s also the title of a new movie from Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel, a documentary focusing on teens from four different high schools as they prepare for the annual competition.

The strategy of filming the run up to an academic contest and coupling the building intensity with an up close and personal focus on one or more participants is a well tried motif (e.g. Spellbound, The Great Debaters).

Moreover, slam poetry is not new. First manifest as a phenomenon back in the 1980s, slam rediscovered poetry as living art and simultaneously diverged from nearly all literary conventions. Slam is primarily oral not written. It’s raw and undisciplined, relies on performance, personal charisma and presence more than felicitous language. It arises from youth culture, not the academy, owes more to rap than to Shakespeare. Twenty years later, however, these contrasts no longer have the same shock value.

But despite the familiarities, in fact maybe because of them, Louder Than A Bomb comes off as fresh, vibrant and relevant. Having had time as a “traditional” poet to come to terms with slam’s radical approach, I felt better prepared to accept and consider it as a legitimate form of poetic expression. And having brought to the theater certain expectations with respect to the concept of the “academic contest as film” I found myself all the more surprised at the non-competitive elements that stood out so eloquently in Louder Than A Bomb. That these kids compete not as spellers or debaters but as poets uniquely facilitates their ability to discover each other as human beings. Throughout the film there is an out-loud dimension of enthusiastic a-ha comprehension and support. In a city known for turf battles and gangs, color and class barriers, poetry as a means of drawing children together is amazing stuff.

Just as poignantly, the richly detailed often troubled situations in which many of these teens are growing up directly influences and is interpreted by the poems. When Lamar Jorden, leader of the Steinmenauts team from the West Side of Chicago, in a voiceover at the beginning of the film says, “I was a bit of a troublemaker, and I did some things I regret. I would like damage a lot of things in my house, but my father never cried about that. When I got arrested, my father didn’t cry about that. First time I made my father cry, was the first time he heard me perform poetry,” one understands the poverty of communication in his life, and the r0le poetry plays in addressing it.

Even for Adam Gottlieb, progeny of nearly perfect circumstances, matriculating at Northside College Prep, one of the nation’s top schools, encouraged by his still married, affectionate middle-class parents, poetry has clearly deepened his sense of himself and of the world. Charismatic in his delivery, he channels the Beats, and his genuine feelings of fraternity for his “opponents” wows them and us. Nova Venerable, half-Indian, half-African American, representing Oak Park/River Forest, is more direct but just as mesmerizing, her voice edgy and wounded as she reveals her pain over an estranged and abusive father, and the threatened loss of a chronically ill brother. Nate Marshall, who represents Whitney Young, lives with his mother, both his parents having struggled with drug addiction, and early on points out for the camera where in the South Side neighborhood park he was “jumped” by assailants. Of all the works we hear, his come closest to rap in their pacing, rhyme-laced, upbeat and full of humor.

Despite the slam slogan, “the point is not the point, it’s the poetry,” I found the interactions outside of the performances complementary and compelling. Here’s verse that functions as a catalyst for understanding between children, and also between children and their parents (and teachers as well) at a critical juncture in their lives. When was the last time “serious” poetry could claim to be this essential? Could the literati be missing something?

Dana Gioia in a recent essay in the Hudson Review writes:

While the new popular poetry has received immense coverage from the electronic media and general press, it has garnered relatively little attention from intellectuals and virtually none from established poetry critics. One can understand the reluctance of academic critics. If they have noticed the new popular poetry at all, they immediately see how little it has in common with the kinds of poetry they have been trained to consider worthy of study.

As Gioia, who favors formal prosody, points out, in contemporary poetics, it’s mostly with rap and slam poetry that formal elements like meter and rhyme find unabashed celebration.

The students’ poetry itself provides the best evidence for both the vitality and sincerity of their interest. Was every poem declaimed worthy of publication in the Norton Anthology? No, of course not. But they did consistently surprise me with their coherence and power, their willingness to tackle thorny subjects. Perhaps given the overdose levels of reality TV currently being injected into our culture, the celebrity contests like American Idol and Dancing With The Stars dominating the small screen, the existence of poetry as a purer ambition for American teens represents desperately welcome iconoclasm. For anyone with an interest in the true wealth and breadth of American poetry, this is a must see film.*


*(In keeping with Louder Than A Bomb’s 10 point system for evaluating its declaimers, I award a score of 9.0).

Pamela Johnson Parker is an adjunct professor of composition and creative writing and a medical language specialist in Western Kentucky.  Her poems, flash fiction and essays have appeared in or are forthcoming in The Binnacle, The Other Journal, New Madrid, Pebble Lake Review, Holly Rose Review, Six Sentences, MiPOesias, Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal and Anti-.  A Walk Through Memory Palace, published by Qarrtsiluni literary magazine as the winner of its 2009 poetry chapbook contest is Parker’s first chapbook or book-length publication, perfect bound with a glossy cover and surreal art by Carrie Ann Baade.

The chapbook title alludes to a mnemonic device developed in antiquity in which the user associates fragments of oratory or other text with physical locations in an effort to facilitate memorization.  The locations considered together form a “memory palace,” derived from Cicero’s story of Simonides, who escaped the gods’ destruction of a banquet hall, and used his recollection of the guests’ seating to identify the dead.

Consisting of ten poems, several of which are longer pieces, the book ranges far in its psychological and narrative geography, while keeping its temporal focus on the past.  In terms of mood, A Walk Through the Memory Palace relies on intimate rather than objective reporting.  So the title feels apt with respect to the poems, providing them a framework where their own interrelationship is less important than diverse connection with the poet as source.

This said, there is a strand of the bucolic, of the country house whose garden offers paths to a nearby pond, which threads a number of the pieces together.  In addition, the poems’ inhabitants and their surroundings tend to be viewed from portrait distance, and the language is well crafted and delicately informed.  Parker’s verse finds its power in gentle irony, quiet onomatopoeia and a lush though domestic lexicon.  The evident structure makes the most of a refined music, primarily brief stanzas and short lines consistent in syllable count, sometimes more formal with respect to meter or rhyme.

The first piece in the book, 78 RPM, demonstrates Parker’s skill at distilling felicity from nostalgia.  Here the second person perspective and a hint at the autobiographical, or at least directly witnessed, allow a sensuous return to the adrenaline and pheromones of adolescence.  The language is a filigree of the precisely observed, a snapshot packed with dynamic tension.

As the heavy arm angles

From left to right, as
The stylus traces
Its sapphire finger

Down the record’s groove,
As he skates a single
Finger along the sun-

Bleached down of your
Arm, and as you
Start to shake,

Heart rising and
Falling like Billie’s
Song, cool water poured

To the top, brimming,

Similarly, in Tattoos, a poem consisting of two parts, the language is a smorgasbord of the exotic, the colorful, and the intricate.  The first part focuses on the materials that compose tattoo ink—

Aisles of densities, textures:
dry dun-colored globes,

the testes of arctic
seals; cicada skins, fingers
of ginseng. Silver

Assam teas, great sacks
of rice, geese screeching from crates.

but ultimately furnishes a male protagonist to give the language an erotic gradient and intensity,

“Good for the kidneys,”

says the clerk — young, stripped
to the waist, a great dragon’s
body rippling across

his back, undulant
as he turns, wrapping spices,
plum wine, packages

in brown kraft

The second part zeroes in on the metaphor of the flesh as canvas for the indelible ink of experience, boosting the erotic mercury level even higher:

I want you
so much it hurts to
breathe, want your voice, telling
me about anchors, hearts, names
like Winona,

or Felecia
(either regional or
seductive); about
needles; about inks
of cinnabar, navy, that
almost piceous

black; about the tattoo
of skin against skin, that
most ephemeral
of canvases…

Breasts, the final poem in the collection, taps into Parker’s other textual expertise as a medical writer, effectively animating the sterile jargon of anatomy and frozen sections by juxtaposing it with a breast cancer patient’s living narrative.  What’s remarkable here is the poet’s emphasis on inspection—visual findings being a key part of diagnosis and medical management.  Parker presents multiple perspectives—that of the woman examining her normal breast, that of a clinically “objective” observer, that of the patient status post mastectomy, that of the pathologist, that of the poet, and that of the poet as affected witness, relative of the afflicted.  The effect, given Parker’s magnifying powers of observation, is striking.

Suturing, suturing,
Interrupted silk. The scar
Crosshatched, diagonal

From shoulder to her
Xiphisternum. Zipper, zipper.
Something’s wrong with this

White leather, this
Epidermis sliced and scraped
And stitched — no nipple,

No tissue, no muscle,
No lilt

Some Yellow Tulips, the one poem in the collection I found unsuccessful, suffered because its subject, the Holocaust, is less easily penetrated by Parker’s intimate tropes.  Genocide brutally resists understanding and even if the survivor-protagonist of the poem stoops to the familiar task of raising tulips, she is not of their world.  Parker relies on aesthetically satisfying comparisons to speak for themselves, and they cannot:

Today, her turban slants
Askew over her blue-rinsed hair; her plants,

Once straight as soldiers on her patio,
Are blitzkrieged out of order, the yellow

Tulips (three days blossoming in a vase
Atop her wrought-iron table) don’t erase

Her frown, her sloppy slippers, or the brown
Age spots (about the size of dimes around)

She often hides with gloves.

Parker also asks the stark rigidity of rhymed couplets to supplement the survivor’s concept of order as a source of security.  But this is more earnest than ironic, and misses the mark. The Holocaust is the ultimate corruption of order.  It is Nazi discipline.  It is dirt. It is bits of bone and ash, not the flowers that grow from them.   The poem does glance against a worthy truth: that the present has its own order against which survival can seem a disturbance, a scar, like the tattooed numbers on an old woman’s arm.  But this revelation appears only as a resolving coda.  Ultimately, it is Mrs. Sonnenkrantz herself who represents the terrible blossoming.  Perhaps she deserves a more harrowing exploration, which in the end must undermine beauty.

However, if Some Yellow Tulips misfires aesthetically, it does so like a dark bulb in a string of outdoor lights, letting the rest shine, their circuit still intact.   Parker has a wonderful palette of language, and good instincts for the memorable.  A Walk Through the Memory Palace richly demonstrates both.

Poet Valeria Tsygankova gave this review of Primitive Mood in the literature and arts magazine Philadelphia Stories:

“In his newest book, Primitive Mood, David Moolten picks at humanity’s darkest tendencies and deepest capacities for suffering. Like a patchwork quilt of the twentieth century, the poems in this volume handle violence and loss, questioning and disillusionment, determination and resilience. In quiet, authoritative and incantatory language, Moolten probes the fabric of culture in the West – from the Brothers Grimm to Arshile Gorky – for material that bears his project witness. What emerges is a densely woven and engaging collection of poems, delivered with rhythmic diction, and sometimes reminiscent of spoken word poetry in its rolling momentum and charged endings. With all of the darkness of war, genocide and internment that Moolten lays bare in this volume, there is also a light that enters through the “aperture” of his writing to illuminate the everyday people silhouetted against the dark backdrop of history, reworking their own suffering into beautiful stories. It is this creative power of narrative that stands against the destruction evident in human history in Primitive Mood, and which is also present in Moolten’s powerful and intelligent writing. Moolten’s language is crisp and evocative, and lends itself well to his project of storytelling and remembering.”

Philadelphia Stories, Fiction, Art, Poetry of the Delaware Valley, Winter 2009/2010

I think part of the problem with modern “criticism” is that much of it isn’t really criticism, not in the traditional sense. There are few critics today like T.S. Eliot (not going back too far), who wrote about poetry from the standpoint of a core philosophy he had engineered. I don’t particularly care for Eliot or his unpleasantly biased point of view. But he did have intellectual rigor when it came to criticism. We do have a few individuals, all parochial in the end of course, like Eliot, and academic, like Eliot–these are the drawbacks of such criticism. Helen Vendler comes to mind for one.

Unfortunately, even here one finds a kind of “kingmaker” apparatus, where the critic anoints those poets deemed worthy of “serious” consideration in our time. Less attention is paid to poetry in general, and the qualities that make it poetry, or (less often) great poetry.

Most of what passes for critique,however, is the “book report” capsule review one finds in literary journals and newspapers. Here, I fear, it is difficult to disentangle true criticism from the commercial process. Newspapers and magazines as published instruments have a natural incentive to favor books they can praise since these are books people might buy. Poetry is desperately undervalued in our culture and it’s the poets who are desperate. Desperate to be heard and desperate to be read. The poetry world is very small, insular and incestuous. Most of those who read verse also write it. Is it a great surprise that few are willing to be fully candid in their reviews? It’s far more expedient to be circumspect and political. It’s also easier, since the evaluative criteria are of course subjective, and few critics write from a core philosophy they can articulate, never mind defend. Knowing who your friends are becomes the one constant. Worse, those who resist this tendency often write with such scathing arrogance that their example hardly begs others to write negative reviews and join them on the “dark side.”

Clearly there is bad poetry being written. Every book contains some, or nearly every book. Some books, even by good poets, are nearly all bad. We all know about the complacency that afflicts the “major” poet in mid to late career, and the Emperor’s New Clothes effect, with regard to his/her work. The same applies to the latest fad offering from the latest “iconoclastic” hotshot. Unfortunately we have become so accustomed to our little world of vanity and desperation that we can’t tolerate the truth, only occasional ad hominem rants. Here’s to more integrity, intelligence, and rigor in criticism, but I’m not holding my breath.

(In response to Travis Nichols, The Poetry Foundation, Should Poetry Critics Go Negative?)

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 54 other followers