William Carlos Williams famously declared "no ideas but in things"--by which he meant that poetry should be constructed out of references to actual objects, events, people. This was a reaction to the cloud of abstractions which poets often employed to make traditional verse. Williams believed that the material world constituted truth, a foundation upon which to make a literature of relevance to life as it is really lived.
Of course, Williams didn't always follow his own dictum. Most of his poems--even those most "material" in their substance--are in fact a means to achieving a certain abstraction--a feeling, or a conviction, or a thought. Things as things is only a beginning, not an end in itself.
George Starbuck, who headed the University of Iowa's Poetry Workshop when I attended it in the early 1970's, sarcastically reframed the Williams motto as "no ideas but the in thing." Starbuck was officially a poet opposed to Williams's American Language program, free verse, humble themes and down home subject matter. But he acknowledged the value of material data, and incorporated it in his own highly structured poems.
Williams wasn't alone in advocating a foundation of real things in literature. Leftist thought places emphasis upon the importance of acknowledging real conditions, the "material reality" of existence, "scientific" knowledge, empirical verifications, etc. The Objectivists, of whom Williams was a card-carrying member, believed, as Zukofsky summarized, in "sincerity and objectification" in poetry. Which is to say, that objectified reality, perceived honestly, portrayed accurately, employed with a commitment to truth (sincerity), was the goal. The Objectivist message was shoved aside by the Second World War, and the McCarthy Era's paranoia. But it resurfaced in the 1960's, and has had its share of adherents over the decades.
One of its most avid followers is the young poet Joseph Massey, about whom I wrote previously here in Minimalism Part VII - Joseph Massey & the Collateral Tradition, on August 25th, 2010. The irony for me is that I endorse Zukofsky's dictum, and have tried to follow it myself in the poetry I've written over the last quarter century. I fully accept the notion that you begin with facts, and things, and aspire to achieve a synthesis of objective reality and higher purpose, instead of beginning with ideas and looking for evidence to support them.
A poetry which relies on observation and description risks becoming mired in the physical detritus, in the same way a religious poet, say, becomes tangled up in the conundra of divinity. I've always preferred to read about the imaginative qualities of actual things, which confirm, to a lesser or greater degree, my own confidence and pleasure in appreciating the world of my senses. Any poetry which evokes the sights and sounds and tastes and scents and touch, effectively, will always seem more vivid and tactile and satisfying to me, than a poetry which doesn't. Which would suggest, on its face, that I would be drawn to the poetry of a poet, like Massey, whose poems live in that realm.
Unfortunately, however, I'm put off by Massey's poems, for reasons that I'll try to make clear here, not because I bear Mr. Massey any enmity, but as an objective case to demonstrate what I think can go wrong with the Williams/Zukofsky injunction, when misapplied or misapprehended, or slavishly followed without care.
Mr. Massey lives up on the Northwest Coast of California, south of Eureka. It's rainy, foggy country, the kind of place conducive to quiet meditation and morose moods. The first thing to note about him is that he spends a good deal of time, apparently, watching the weather, and idly studying piles of trash, beach detritus, weedy edges, birdshit, dogshit, garbage, litter, rubble, driftwood, rust, dirt, etc. Certainly, you can't complain about a poet's choice of subject matter, since the challenge in making art is in turning this kind of stuff into meaning. Cormac McCarthy wrote a whole novel, Suttree, about the intricate life of a river-bum, enmeshed in the squalor and degradation of every kind of filth imaginable. Suttree is a wonderful book, and by the end of it (if you make it that far), you know you've been in the hands of a master. So if a poet like Massey chooses to think about junk and garbage, that's his privilege as an artist. The first question to raise in that case is: Are we raised above the level of a curious five-year old who wanders through the waste, enchanted by the exotic items, the casual variety of cast-off materials?
As a boy, I spent most of my time focused on the ground in front of me. I was fascinated by rocks, and all the things people and animals leave on the ground. Money, keys, small toys, keepsakes, rabbit feet, seeds, bits of glass and fibre and paper and metal. I probably was some kind of archeologist of the mundane as a child. But it wouldn't have occurred to me then, that a taxonomy or catalogue of my findings would ever constitute the stuff of artistic expression. Massey, for reasons that are not clear, seems to have determined to devote himself to the minute exploration of the deposits and rubble which he finds in his environment, and recording his thoughts and feelings through the registration.
At the Point [Exeter: Shearsman Books, 2011; 91pp.] is Massey's second full collection of poems. It's fully consistent with his first [Areas of Fog, 2009], and confirms the preoccupations and tendencies of his debut volume.
Cut grass, gasoline,
mound of rotted
weeds in a vacant lot
--the scent cast,
What's in a day's
name: its slowly
at a red light,
rattling the blue
This is typical of Massey's work. Narrow lines, brief stanzas. Line-breaks, dashes and hyphenations split the process of our reading up into segmented apprehensions, as if this were a method designed to delay and control the progression of discovery, as in an incremental revelation of content. I have trouble with poets who seem to believe that line-breaks and word-breaks are evidence of some kind of wit, or as if breaking up phrases and sentences somehow made more sense than simply writing it out as prose. And make no mistake, Massey is no syntactic experimenter; his poems use regular grammar and punctuation, there are no made-up words, and abstraction is held at bay with a determined focus on image and immediate object. These images and objects are linked, but usually with a verbal violence that is many times more intense than the occasion might demand. My assumption is that Massey thinks that this intensifies the effect of the emotion, and makes a stronger poem. Constructions--such as "flustered shade" or "huddled cars" or "rattled . . . trailer"--would suggest that the poet wants us to read more into inert matter than is there, and that his doing this increases our appreciation of his ingenious sensibility.
double the day's
How to untwine
noise, to see.
There's the bay,
a weaker shade
of gray than this
The page turns
on the table, bare
I thought was
I have a number of problems with poetry like this. First, I have trouble reading it as plain sense. What does "cross-stitched outside sounds" actually mean, and how do these sounds "double the day's . . . confusion"? There's a straining after effect with the highway "slashed." A landscape might be "slashed" to make way for a road, or the sound of traffic on a freeway might sound like "flash" or "shushing"; but "slashed beneath" is not only literally inaccurate, it's a pretentious attempt at dramatic description, which doesn't convince. Or, the "sky's widening bruise" which I suspect is an attempt to describe an overcast color or occluding cloud front. But bruises are usually pink, or red, or brown, only occasionally grey or dull blue, which I suspect is the tint being evoked. The conclusion is a weak attempt at irony. If the speaker was actually writing this poem in a notebook, the words would be written on the page on the table. Why we should be either surprised or moved by their blankness is not explained. In the end, we are more apt to regard the poet's "confusion" in line four as the poem's essential, though unintended, message. The overall effect of a descriptive sequence such as this is that the writer is a watcher, recording detail and event, and attempting to draw philosophical or meditative conclusions. But the crudity and exaggeration and inexpressive means fail to accomplish this.
The Lack Of
Sunset's requisite sparrows
clamor in the shrubbery.
How the room falls, falls
further into formlessness,
cast to the moon's
What are "requisite sparrows"? Is "clamor" the right verb to describe the sound birds make in a bush? In what sense is the room "falling" and where is it falling to? How is "memory cast" to the moon? What are "glassed transmissions"? Since Massey is such a stickler for material reality, exactly what kinds of impressions, or direct observations are these? My guess is that "requisite" is an attempt to inject a trite irony into the initial setting. "Clamor" wants to be more emphatic than another, more accurate descriptive for the bird flutter. The room "falling into formlessness" is an attempt to . . . what?. . . describe someone fainting, or nodding off? Isn't "glassed transmissions" just a naive way of saying the moon is seen through a window? What other poetic qualities are summoned by "glassed"?
The use of overkill language is rife in Massey's verse. The "highway" is "slashed"; "shadows carve the room"; words are "plunged into hunger"; "haze blots"; "light" is "gashed"; "nasturtiums lurch"; "leaves" are "lathed"; "hedges dredged"; "halved by haze"; "ocean's drone drones"; "things throb"; "clouds" are "warped"and so on. There are, too, a number of whoppers strewn about on the pile: "spring singes the sky's organized incisions." Ooh, that one stings! "Traffic's sustained sibilance grows louder later." "Through the bone of a stutter." "Gibbous moon splinters." "Wind pinched." "Where the jetty juts." "Moss-cleaved crags absorb." "Stone reflecting stone." "Knocks the walls into sleep." "This severed gestation." "Thorax throws off." "An echo gathering more and more silence." The more I read of Massey's work, the more convinced I become that he's futilely trying to reach for statements and effects that he seems unable to achieve. He mistakes hyperbole and oxymoron and malapropism for poetic successes, apparently believing that this makes his work vivid and immediate and pungent. A construction such as "hedges dredged" looks like a pathetic attempt at onomatopoeia, but the actual effect is a tinny clank. Hedges bear no useful relation to dredging, so though their shared sounds intersect, forcing them together is not a happy convergence. It's simply a mistake.
Mr. Massey wants his poems to sound as if they have conviction, and this frequently leads him into dead-end structures.
The view of hills and clouds through a window does in no sense suggest that they, or the speaker, or the viewer (reader) are in any sense "levitating." What is supposed to be rising? The clouds? The window-sill? The poet? Or does the simple iteration of the "Return" bar signal the rising of the earlier stanzas?
In the work of George Oppen, or John Taggart, or Ronald Johnson, say, description succeeds both because the means report or interpret reality validly--that is to say, accurately--and the thought is profound enough to give us pause. Joe Massey seems a nice enough fellow--though his character seems more obscured than revealed in his poetry--but he's neither profound nor sensitive enough to write interesting poems. There are references to excessive drinking here, which I suspect is no accident. The overall impression is one of bored silences, of aimless drifting along streets or seaside outlines. The poems show effort, but not the delight we feel in happy combinations of sense, sound and phenomena. Massey has a tinny ear. He thinks "a dream's drowsy disassembly" is a "poetic expression," a struggling towards articulation. But it's just a stupid alliteration that summons amusement, not confirmation.
This book is dedicated "to Humboldt County" where Massey lives. California has been the dramatic inspiration for a number of good writers. Robinson Jeffers along the Big Sur Coast. Gary Snyder in the Sierra Mountains and along the seashore. John Steinbeck. Robert Hass. Yvor Winters. Our forests and mountains and plains and rivers and rocky coast-lines have inspired a lot of interesting writing. We are still creating a regional literature that will stand for generations to come. I wish I could say that Massey's work is likely to rise to that level, but I can't. If he hasn't read his Thoreau and Emerson and Dickinson and Whitman, he needs to start. If he hasn't read Pound and Stevens and Williams and Zukofsky, he needs to do so, and soon. Because if he continues along the path he's chosen, he will end up like Cid Corman, conjuring pathetic flash-card haikus.