Tuesday, December 23, 2008

David Lehman's When a Woman Loves a Man

I recently picked up David Lehman's When a Woman Loves a Man. I chose it not because of a long-held interest in Lehman's work, or even a casual curiosity based on poems read over a period of time, but because I read a single poem from it on Writer's Almanac, “SF”:

SF stood for Sigmund Freud, or serious folly,
for science fiction in San Francisco, or fear
in the south of France. The system failed.
The siblings fought. So far, such fury,
as if a funereal sequence of sharps and flats
set free a flamboyant signature, sinful, fanatic,
the fire sermon of a secular fundamentalist,
a singular fellow's Symphonie Fantastique.

Students forget the state's favorite son's face.
Sorry, friends, for the screws of fate.
Stage fright seduces the faithful for the subway fare
as slobs fake sobs, suckers flee, salesmen fade.
Sad the fops. Sudden the flip side of fame.
So find the segue. Finish the speculative frame. (69)

“SF” appears in the second half of When a Woman Loves a Man, and reading it here again, all by its lonesome, I'm less enamored of it than originally, but I still like it. Having read the whole book, which isn't very good, my interest has waned—what I now know has colored my current perception as well as my memory of the past. What sold me on giving the book a try was Lehman's New School cred; not that I'm an acolyte, but I do have a soft spot for NY School poetry in general, and I'm willinger to toss out a wide net in the cold Atlantic than to plow my way through a cornfield of Iowa alums.

That said, what do I like about “SF”? Lehman handles the central conceit rather well—working in all those esses and efs in an interesting sonic fashion (hey, that's an SF!), and then making some sense, though tangential of the combinations; for example, Sigmund Freud/serious folly; funereal sequence/sharps and flats; flamboyant signature/sinful, fanatic; and slobs fake sobs/suckers flee/salesmen fade, though there I'd excise either slobs or sobs, just because I think it sounds better without one or the other. The poem, overall, doesn't feel belabored to me; it's fun, as it's meant to be, but it's also light as a feather, and feathers work better when put together to make something fly. If Lehman's, or any poet's idea was to examine a feather's intrinsic beauty or design or purpose, that's one challenge, and I venture a more daunting one; therefore “SF” is a trifle of a poem that floats off on its own, but can't withstand the demands of establishing a sound foundation for the rest of the structure that this book is.

When a Woman Loves a Man begins strongly. A prelude, “Brooklyn Bridge” recalls Hart Crane's “To Brooklyn Bridge,” in terms of its subject matter and the enthusiasm, even love each poet has for it, but stylistically each couldn't be more different. Lehman's single-stanzaic poem is like a mighty outpouring (or as they say on Law and Order, “an excited utterance”)—ecstatic, untamed, a declaration descending from Whitman's barbaric YAWP, using step-lines that add to its unbridled giddiness:

Calvin Coolidge,
jump for joy!
I've got to hand
it to you—
with compliments
that it will make you blush
like my country's flag
no matter how United
States of America
you may be! (1)

Here's Crane:

How many dawns, chill from his rippling rest
The seagull's wings shall dip and pivot him,
Shedding white rings of tumult, building high
Over the chained bay waters Liberty—

Then, with inviolate curve, forsake our eyes
As apparitional as sails that cross
Some page of figures to be filed away;
—Till elevators drop us from our day . . . (57)

There's an excitement in Crane, rediscovery upon closer examination that is cinematic and sweeping of a beloved object, but it's discreet, polite; not to say that Lehman is impolite, but he strikes me as someone more likely to belch in public and apologize for it, than ducking out of the room to burp in private. Also, breaking United / States of America as he does is a simple thing, but it's effective, and shows he's got the wherewithal to put some additional thought into how the lines look on the page, not just as a mass exodus of celebratory language but in microscopic detail, too.

There are other good poems here, but they are outweighed by an excess of cleverness and featherweight verse that doesn't work even as well as “SF.” The high points are lofty, but even those ultimately diminish when combined with what remains.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Writing the Chicago Crawl

Most people I know hate teaching comp classes, but as a 'creative writer' I find that it keeps my head straight as far as the so-called writing basics go; it also helps stave off any incipient existential angst when my own writing may not be going so well, by simply forcing me to address rudimentary issues in a manner that makes them clear to my students, therefore getting me to be actively engaged in thinking about writing, while not thinking about my writing. For the semester that just ended, my 101 class focused by design largely on language issues, reading essays by Anne Lamott, Malcolm X, Brent Staples, Amy Tan, Richard Rodriguez, and Marjorie Agosín, but as I was reading through William Stafford's Writing the Australian Crawl, I found numerous essays that would also tie appropriately into the arc of the class.

I finally settled on “A Way of Writing.” Stafford begins, “A writer is not so much someone who has something to say as he is someone who has found a process that will bring about new things he would not have thought of if he had not started to say them” (17). This is, of course, an important philosophy for neophyte academic writers, poets, fiction writers and essayists too. He stresses the importance of receptivity while writing, as well as a willingness to fail: “most of what I write, like most of what I say in casual conversation, will not amount to much” (19). Once any writer realizes this, and sees that the most important thing is writing itself, again, as a process, they have leaped an important hurdle. Stafford ends this essay on what he calls the “process-rather-than-substance view of writing” with a final dual reflection:

1. Writers may not be special—sensitive or talented in any usual sense. They are simply engaged in sustained use of a language skill we all have. Their “creations” come about through confident reliance on stray impulses that will, with trust, find occasional patterns that are satisfying.
2. But writing itself is one of the great, free human activities. There is scope for individuality, and elation, and discovery, in writing. For the person who follows with trust and forgiveness what occurs to him, the world remains ready and deep, an inexhaustible environment, with the combined vividness of an actuality and flexibility of a dream. Working back and forth between experience and thought, writers have more than space and time can offer. They have the whole unexplored realm of human vision. (20)

I like “the world remains ready and deep, an inexhaustible environment, with the combined vividness of an actuality and flexibility of a dream.” Many times writers feel compelled to take sides, either planting their feet in the realm of the real, or letting their heads float into the clouds. When either commitment works, on an personal level, and we see it reflected, alive and vibrant in their work, the writer doesn't need any excuses—the work speaks for itself. But those instances may be rarer than the true believers would choose to admit. Picking a style, and sticking with it is, in some ways, like a marriage; but promises made at the altar need to adapt to changes as the couple grows as individuals. Before too long, the writer is letting style drive the bus, and not the other way around. Stafford's reflection allows for a “your-shit-does-stink” authenticity alongside the promise of deeper or more arcane knowledge.

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