Disrupted Diction(s)

It's a truism in the poetry world that the big New York publishers don't support poetry. The exception is W.W. Norton. I was thinking about this recently when I noticed that three books of poems stacked together on the corner of my desk were all published by Norton. (It's oddly lovely the way objects collocate into meaningful constellations.) The books on the desk are: Alice Fulton's Barely Composed, Kimiko Hahn's The Narrow Road to the Interior[1. Hahn has a new book, but this one is on my desk because it shares its title with one of Matsuo Basho's travel pieces & I'm writing about Basho, though not about that particular piece.], and my old grad school friend Marilyn Chin's Hard Love Province. Another collocation: All women. I don't tend to read books of poems straight through, so I have been leafing & loafing through these three books from Norton, with great pleasure & enthusiasm. Not only is Norton publishing poetry, it is publishing very good poetry indeed. I only came to know Hahn's work recently, while looking at everything I could find by contemporary writers having to do with Basho. The book is in the form of a journal, shifting from prose to poetry. Of the three books, Hahn's presents me with the most problems, formal & emotional. It's not easy for me to get a purchase on Hahn's forms--she seems to bend Basho to the breaking point--nor on the emotional tenor of the work: the writer turns Basho's subtle monochrome into high-chroma abstractions. Where Basho is personal, Hahn is confessional. (The great American "confessional" poets of the mid-twentieth century were very important to me as both reader & writer.) The voice speaking in Hahn's Narrow Road is ruthlessly honest & difficult. But not likable. Sometimes hectoring, sometimes confessional, it is also, like Basho's voice, caught between the extremes of home & travel--both poets ill at ease sitting still while understanding, too, that movement from place to place does not solve the problem of how to live. Marilyn Chin's poems are more accessible than Hahn's, at least in terms of syntax & lexicon, both of which are more stripped down in Hard Love Province than in Chin's earlier work. (We were both students of Donald Justice, whose insistence on precision & surface clarity influenced a generation of students with widely differing styles.) Chin, like Hahn & Fulton, happily mixes high & low diction, the intellectual & the confessional, the confrontational & a capacious & compassionate generosity. In reading through Hard Love Province (right next door to Hard Luck Province?), what I feel most acutely is a wild & sometimes violent series of mood swings--from tender to angry. The tenderness tends to be directed at particular persons, whereas the anger is more general, more "political."  In technique, the poems in Hard Luck Province seem more loosely constructed--more "postmodern"--than Chin's earlier work. I remark this without prejudice, though it may be a sign of my own prosodic conservatism that I notice it at all. A number of the poems drop punctuation, substitution white space within the line. This is a technique I associate with mid-twentieth century Black Mountain poetry, deriving mostly from the practice of Charles Ol;son, I think. I've never been able to use it myself, and as a reader I'm a little suspicious of it. It can seem like a way to avoid syntax, which is so central to my own practice. "Poetry is made by breaking sentences across the structure of the poetic line," I tell my students. Still, these disruptions of the line by no means amount to "projective verse," but a sort of phrasal prosody. Adrienne Rich & Denise Levertov employ similar internal line breaks. In a couple of poems ("Formosan Elegy" & "Nocturnes") the gaps in the lines act like the strong cesuras between the hemistichs in Anglo-Saxon stress prosody & reading carefully it is possible to catch a subtle alliterative music here as well. Marilyn Chin was a student of Donald Justice & clearly knows the One poem, "Summer Sleep (after Meng Haoran)," uses this split-line technique to great effect. Perhaps because the poem is a quasi-translation, the effect of breaking the relatively short lines in two produces an ideographic effect. Based on a seventh century Chinese original,  "Summer Sleep" is an elegy for Chin's (and my) teacher, Donald Justice. David Hinton [2. Classical Chinese Poetry. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux (2008).] translates Meng Haoran's title as "Spring Dawn" & Greg Whincup [3. The Heart of Chinese Poetry. New York: Doubleday (1987).] as "Spring Sunrise." Here is Hinton's translation:

In Spring sleep, dawn arrives unnoticed. Suddenly, all around, I hear birds in song.

A loud night. Wind and rain came, tearing blossoms down. Who knows few or many?

Instead of the original's two couplets, Chin's poem deploys six, beginning with sleep & birds & noise--

Summer sleep      I missed the dawn My tired eyes      too heavy to open

Far off birds argue      freeways hiss Car alarms trill      false emergencies

then ending with rain & the innumerability of the world in the form of poems--and how much else!--left unfinished:

Rain dances       death coins on the roof Time devours us      imperceptibly

Empty womb      pupils beg for entry Unfinished poems      don't know how many

But Chin inserts modern & personal, even confessional, DNA into the genome of this short poem, recalling a childhood dream of sex & death. Among the central concerns of classical Chinese poetry are friendship and gratitude; Chin's poem honors her teacher, who ". . . scowls and sighs      [and] scorns my mediocrity" by finally recognizing the innumerable losses of unwritten poems. The effect--achieved by disrupting historical, cultural & formal patterns of expectation--combines precision & emotion in a way few poets manage. I've been reading & being astonished by Alice Fulton's poems for many years. Unlike Marilyn Chin, her basic mode--the way she presents her poems--has not changed greatly from book to book. There is always--or almost always--a formal grid against which the poems are constructed: the ghosts of traditional stanza forms, a generally fairly long free verse line. (This is true, too, of Marilyn Chin's work, though she seems to have a somewhat more resentful attitude toward the formal grid in recent work.) The flexible stability of her forms allows Fulton to play wildly with her language. Fulton uses every dictionary & encyclopedia at her disposal, including a couple she appears to have compiled for herself. Fulton reaches into every corner of the language for bits & pieces & deploys them regardless of tone, register, source, or etymology:

There are many opportunities here for unrequited friendship, the offer letter said. All you need is a chain saw and a die grinder. ["Personally Engraved"]

The absence of quotation marks around the first clause casts doubt on the veracity of the statement, so immediately we are in epistemological, if not yet ontological, difficulties. The difficulties & disruptions of expectation are compounded in this poem and throughout the book by leaps of register, diction & vocabulary. It is these leaps of diction & register that define Fulron's style & though she deploys some of the visual / spatial / syntactical disruptions of the other poets discussed here, these are usually in the service of Fulton's wild language. The opening lines of "Beaten into Leaf" give some idea of how this works, though reading through Barely Composed from start to finish, the effect is cumulative, amplified.

You are so not gold. So ruffled, stooping, hunchbacked and wishing to be closer to gold's calm repose. Inert and beaten into leaf, free of snits and scolds. Hammered, recast by lost-wax techniques. Ductilemalleable. Reflective but unflappable. How great must it be to be not needy? An irrational deep magnet whose lack of reciprocity is valued as a lack of rust. In gold we trust.

Related to the way Fulton flips around in the language is the way in which she creates confusion about who is speaking. Who is the "you" of "Beaten into Leaf"? The reader? The speaker? Some sliding & slipping combination of both? Someone else entirely? It is confusion without obfuscation, though: a productive confusion that questions the usual assumptions we make about roles & identities. Each of these poets sets out to surprise the reader by subverting the conventions of the contemporary lyric, though subtly. There are certainly poets--usually identified as "experimental"--who disrupt the reader's expectations much more radically. I freely confess that work of that sort rarely finds purchase in my imagination. What interests me about Hahn, Chin, & Fulton is the way they strike their bargains with convention.  

Author: jd

Joseph Duemer is Professor of Literature Emeritus at Clarkson University in northern New York state. His most recent book of poems is Magical Thinking from Ohio State University Press. Since the mid-1990s he has spent a good deal of time in Vietnam, mostly Hanoi. He lives with his wife Carole & five terriers (four Jack Russells & one Patterdale) on the stony bank of the Raquette River in South Colton.