Thursday, April 14, 2011

Verse Subversions (Book review of Revolution of the Word) by Alison Ross

Avant Garde has always carried certain connotations for me that I have had to adjust upon reading the poetry in Jerome Rothenberg's Revolutions of the Word - A New Gathering of American Avant Garde poetry 1914-1945. It turns out that it connotes something much less intimidatingly restrictive than I had originally thought. I had always pigeonholed unusual poetry a bit more simplistically - Beat, surrealist, symbolist, Dada, confessional, and so on. But it turns out Avant Garde can encompass any of these sub-genres, and sometimes there are various genres within the same poem.

Hewing to rigid categorization of anything is, of course, anathema, but we categorize to conveniently differentiate among species of things: clothing, furniture, books, appliances, and so on. So for me Avant Garde always emanated the odor of "radically experimental" and therefore in my mind Avant Garde poems all had a similar tenor and even form, much like academic poetry. And it always seemed odd to me that the antithesis of academic poetry would be so provincially-oriented. Wasn't Avant Garde poetry intended to raucously combat the stifling homogeny of conventional verse? Wasn't it aimed toward overthrowing the despotic police state of traditional poetry in order to "liberate" it into its natural, even embryonic state?

It turns out I was the provincial one. The poems in Rothenberg's assemblage favor a panoply of tones and structures, and the entire collection, taken collectively, does indeed lead one more toward cerebral emancipation as opposed to further intellectual shackling. It is a joy to read these poems, which are indeed radically experimental (especially for their time), and yet richly varied in every way.

Some poems are obtuse but well worth the arduous effort to apprehend them, others are playfully flamboyant, and yet others are impossible to slog through. There are so many disparate styles and devices employed, all in the service of subverting the oppressively orthodox, and freeing verse from the dictates of structure and stricture.

The poems in this volume represent the burgeoning modernism of the early-mid 20th century, the roots of which lie in poetry from earlier movements like symbolism and other anarchic trends.

There are some well-known writers in this anothology, such as e.e cummings, T.S. Eliot, and Gertrude Stein, but there are many more writers who are less well known, or what I like to call "one-hit wonders" - poets who may have had one or two poems or books of verse that made an impact on the scene, but whose fame was fleeting rather than fixed.

The verse matters more than the names, of course. These poems sprawl across a 259-page anthology, and it's hard to know which ones to pick to exemplify the exhaustive treatment Rothenberg has given to American Avant Garde verse during that era. He seems hell-bent on including everything modernistic in existence from that period.

One of the poets that I intensely DISLIKED is Else Baroness von Freytag-Loringhoven. I wanted to like her owing to her delightfully quirky name, but it turns out her poetry is just impenetrably absurd. I love absurdism, but she takes it to new heights. She flogs Dada into the ground with her rambling blather that COULD be entertaining if it weren't so self-consciously constructed. And it goes on like this for pages:

From "My Soul Singeth":

He is hidden like the hidden toad - - - hidden animal - cave-
animal - chiseled animal - animal of shadow! - - goldrimmed
pupils narrowing in light - blinking - thinking dark dreams!
Hidden - lightshy - skinpale - does not perish in flame - I remem-
ber old witchword;
Jewels hidden in its head - - - hidden - hidden - hidden animal!
Splendid - proud - majestic - immobile - - - when it feeds it
moveth swift like thought!

Again, I wouldn't object to it if it weren't overkill of that particular Dadaist ethos. Dadaism is great, but in measured portions. von Freytag seems incapable of restraint.

Nonetheless, you have to admire a poet who will loudly assert such beatific nonsense for a seeming eternity. And her imagery and wordplay are subllime; it's the tedious form that puts me off, and yet I can appreciate its novelty.

Another one by her is less repellent form-wise and rife with giddy humor:

No spinsterlollypop for me!
Yes! We have no bananas
I got lusting palate
I always eat them...
There's the vibrator
Coy flappertoy! ...
A dozen cocktails, please!

Harry Crosby's poem, Short Introduction to the Word, appeals to my instincts a bit more readily, with its focus on language itself:

Take the word Sun which burns permanently in my brain. It has accuracy and alacrity. It is monomaniac in its intensity. It is a continual flash of insight. It is the marriage of Invulnerability with Yes, of the Red Wolf with the Gold Bumblebee, of Madness with Ra.
Birdileaves, Goldabbits, Fingertoes, Auroramor, Barbarifire, Paraboll,lw, Peaglecock, Lovegown, Nombrilomane.
I undertand certain words to be single and by themselves and deriving from no other words as for instance the word I.
I believe that certain physical changes in the brain result in a given word - this word having the distinguished characteristic of unreality being born neither as a result of conotation nor of conscious endeavor: Starlash.

There is the automatic word as for instance with me the word Sorceress; when the word goes on even while my attention is focused on entirely different subjects just as in swimming my arms and legs go on automatically even when my attention is focused on subjects entirely different from swimming such as witchcraft for instance or the Sorceress.

And then there is Eugene Jolas and his poem, Express, lush with savory sensory experiences and morbid tones:

I am a dream-man in a chaos.
Rain shakes the windows, and I watch the tortured beings waste into decay...
Chase yourself, little specter of the night!
The air quakes with the echoes of the bombs that the stars shot down.
Our loneliness is more terrible than that of a prison. If I should shout. no one would hear my voice, and my words would come back scorched into shame.

It's blissfully impossible to concretely capture the chaotic character of this anthology of American Avant Garde verse from the early to mid-20th century. It is so cluttered with variety and inanity and dynamic depth that it leaves one's head in a bit of a swirl. But it's all in the service of showcasing subversive modernistic verse, and that can never be a bad thing; indeed it's highly entertaining and illuminating, and that, to me, is the purpose of poetry to begin with.

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