Friday, July 15, 2005

After Reading Crush

I read Richard Siken’s Crush a couple days ago, and I was going to write a little review, but after reading Emily’s comments, I realized I was about to duplicate much of what she said, even (amazingly) down to her particular picks of great lines (“every time we kissed there was another apple / to slice into pieces”), not-so-great lines (“You will be alone always and then you will die”), and her choice of the poem “Saying Your Names” as the “greatest hit.”

So I thought I’d talk instead about something else. I absolutely agree with Louise Glück in her introduction to Crush when she says, “In poetry, art seems, at one extreme, rhymed good manners, and at the other, chaos. The great task has been to infuse clarity with the passionate ferment of the inchoate, the chaotic.” She goes on to say (and I’m not sure I’d agree with this) that “Crush is the best example I can presently give of profound wildness that is also completely intelligible.” She compares Crush to Plath’s Ariel in its urgency and obsession.

Crush is a reminder that while there are thousands of Plath imitators, no one has really taken her place. I think there’s a longing for poetry of her urgency and obsession, and Siken has tapped into it whether or not his poems are at the level of Ariel (whose are?).

Seriously, if you want to read poems with that urgency, who would you read? Uh, Ted Kooser? John Ashbery? Glück herself? It’s not that that’s the only kind of strong poetry, but isn’t there a big void in contemporary poetry if that’s what you’re looking for? I can hardly think of anyone who even approaches that particular sort of intensity. I think of Ai, who most people would agree wrote her best poems 30 years ago, and in a strange way I also think of Frank Bidart, even though both he and Ai do what they do primarily through persona poems. Also Lynda Hull, who may be the closest “partner” I can think of for Richard Siken. But who else? I must be forgetting dozens of people, right? Or am I?

Siken’s book takes a lot of risks, in the best sense. For example, take the poem “Boot Theory.” Let’s not even mention the fact that it starts with the old “Take my wife—please” joke. Just go straight to the ending:

A man takes his sadness down to the river and throws it in the river
but then he’s still left
with the river. A man takes his sadness and throws it away
but then he’s still left with his hands.

Are these great lines or awful lines? I think … they’re both! I can imagine myself reading them in a certain mood and thinking they’re shallow, rehashed Merwinesque surrealism. But in another mood: they’re unbelievably powerful, original, heartbreaking, devastating.

Siken’s poems are defiant, too. I kept thinking of this James Wright passage:

If you do not care one way or another about
The preceding lines,
Please do not go on listening
On any account of mine.
Please leave the poem.

Siken’s poems have a similar tone. I love how they seem to say, “I know there are people who will hate these poems, and they are welcome to go to hell.” I think Siken needs to watch out to avoid the melodrama that Ai sometimes falls into her poems, but that doesn’t mean to avoid the extremity, the passion, the chaos. When it works (“My applejack, my silent night, just mash your lips against me”), it’s electrifying.


Emily Lloyd said...

Good point about the urgency--I responded (in a babbling kind of way) over here.

Robert said...

Great comments, Emily. Your distinction between violent urgency and quiet urgency seems just right, as does your distinction between urgency and authority. As you say, some of Siken’s poems seem to slide into a slot. Perhaps the worst criticism I could make of them is I could almost imagine some of them in the voice of Tom Cruise. (Please think about it for a minute, people, before crucifying me for saying that.)

Still, everyone from Whitman to Plath wrote bad poems. Poets deserve to be judged by their best, and Siken’s best is awfully good. Glück talked about the tension between order and chaos, and I think “melodrama” (which maybe is what you mean by “the slot”) is a problem not because it’s too passionate, but because it’s an over-controlling way of taming chaos, substituting a cliché of emotional chaos for the real thing.

I also wonder how much of the violent urgency in some poems is simply connected to their being written in the second person, addressed to a loved-hated “you.” That’s one way of making a poem urgent, but it has the danger of falling into all the clichés of film noir. Crush is very noir! I’m afraid I’m not making clear how much I liked it, though. Kudos to you for preserving in your posts the lineation of the poems, which I failed to do and really is an integral part of their force.

I think I'm the one who's babbling here. But that's why we'd rather blog than write an essay for Partisan Review, right?

Emily Lloyd said...

Very good point about the "you," both here and on my blog, and about the Carl Solomon section of "Howl"---REALLY interesting to think about.

Oh, by slot, I didn't mean melodrama per se--just that I recognized Siken's work in the work of earlier others, whereas Plath's...I don't see her anywhere but in her.

Emily Lloyd said...

Oh, and yes, Crush is very noir--very filmic in general. Can't you easily see it being made into an indie queer film? Without Tom Cruise [laughing].

Robert said...

Because I tend to, um, obsessively write in the second person, I am very interested in this "you" issue. I fear it's a serious weakness. On the other hand, since it is my obsession, maybe I'd better stick with it to the bitter end. Hey, Lisa G., are you lurking out there? Didn't you say you'd just written an essay about the pros and cons of "second person" poetry?

the machinist said...

Robert--nice post. I agree with you almost completely. But, when I read it always amazes me. It can (maybe does?) veer off into melodrama sometimes, but I think the fact Siken took that risk is exactly what makes the book so spectacular and moving. We should, at least, risk sentimentality, right? Or well, I think we should, anyway.

Lisa said...

Yep - or more accurately, given a class at WW about it. It has now gone all out of my head. *And* I haven't yet read _Crush_ - just ordered it.

With those disclaimers in place:

Poets either love you or hate you. (I know, the puns are unavoidable. Imagine italics where appropriate.) Some feel engagd, challenged, intrigued... others threatened, manipulated, confused. I love the use of you when done well - which, for me, means simultaneous (a) clarity - who's being addressed? The beloved? The reader? the self? the colloqual you (casual substitute for "one")? and (b) malleability - when the "you" shifts (say, from the colloquial you to self-address), does it, um... work?

Malleability - shifts in the you across a poem - is where things get interesting for me. Two very different successful examples: Phil Levine's "What Work Is" and Jane Mead's "House of Poured-Out Waters." The movement from one you to another is integral to both poems' engagement with the reader. This engagement - akin to the removal of the 4th wall in theater - is endlessly fascinating to me. What happens when the intimate voice in your ear, the overheard musing, turns and addresses/identifies you directly, implicates you in the poem as it's progressing? I love that stuff.

OK, now we're getting off the topic of Siken's book... and yet, also... not. "Crush is very noir," Robert says above. Is the second person noir as well? By definition? Meaning: voiced-up? Self-conscious? Manipulative? How to use these effects for good and not for evil?

OK, I'm gonna go read the book now.

Robert said...

Thanks for the comments--so much interesting stuff to think about here! I agree about the risk-taking, Woody. I hope my comments come across as praise of Crush (sort of like when Greil Marcus says "this verse sucks" about a Bob Dylan song, it's because he loves the song so much).

Lisa, your point about malleability is so interesting! I looked at that Levine poem again because I'd never really noticed that, but you're right about how he does this quick removal of the 4th wall. It's almost like he takes a quick glance at the reader ("I know you're there, you son of a bitch") and then goes back to the poem. Anyway, you read Crush and I'll read Jane Mead's House of Poured-Out Waters.

Lisa said...

"I know you're there, you son of a bitch"...

Isn't that a line from your "Quarter Past Blue"?

Robert said...

Uh, when "you" say "your" "Quarter Past Blue," is that the beloved you, the colloquial you, or the malleable you? :~)

Robert said...

P.S. on Crush: In the "different strokes" category, I couldn't help noticing that in his brief review in last Sunday's New York Times, Joel Brouwer singles out for praise a line that both Emily and I singled out for criticism: "You will be alone always and then you will die." And his example of Siken at his best is the ending of "Wishbone": "This is where the evening / splits in half, Henry, love or death. Grab an end, pull hard, / and make a wish." I like "Wishbone" a lot, but that ending is actually my least favorite part: it seems a bit over-neat to me, love or death, make a wish, etc. For my taste it's the lines right before those that are dynamite:

... dead man at our feet
staring up at us like we're something interesting.

Now that's interesting! I'd have been tempted to end the poem right there.

Emily Lloyd said...

Robert--I'm just not seeing your last comment here--how intriguing; I'll need to look at Brouwer's review. I agree with you about "interesting"...

Robert said...

Hmm, Emily, you're just not seeing it? I don't see. Or maybe you're just now seeing it? More importantly, I think I've figured out who dies in Harry Potter. No one's given me any clues, but I can think of only one character whose death would be a total tearjerker and yet the story could easily go on.