Poetry Takes The Risks The Mainstream Media are Sorely Lacking

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You can’t judge a book by its cover, but I’m going take shot at it anyway.

The cover of The Breakup of My First Marriage, a painting by Joanne Pagano Weber, is devastatingly on target in its sense of mayhem. You wouldn’t know what’s coming from the usual blurbs or even Bruce Weber’s amusing face, but that cover of the naked and half-naked screwing around with each other lives up to the poems and they live up to it.

book
(The Breakup of My First Marriage, Bruce Weber, Rogue Scholars Press, 75pp, 2009)

Sometimes you read a collection of poems and come away cold. If the experience nags you, you might go back and give the poems a second try and come away rewarded. Unlike some writers, I like this phenomenon. I don’t insist on instant access, instant gratification, which together constitute a misleading criterion. But I read The Breakup cold in one sitting about a month ago and I fretted because a respected friend had commended it to me and I was unimpressed and didn’t want to be.

I decided to treat the book like my own poems and fiction. I decided to let them cool off. I would return another day. I must have picked the right day to return to the work because on second reading-once again in one sweep-I couldn’t remember for the life of me what had put me off the first time. Had it happened to me before? Sure. I read Proust in college and felt heroic for wading through a third of In Search of Lost Time. Today I read and reread him with delight. On the other hand, Hart Crane, who has defeated more than one first-timer, thrilled me when I encountered him in high school.

That is perhaps why I returned to The Breakup, knowing that writers often fall victim to a reader’s bad mood. Or maybe not a bad mood but rather a mood inhospitable to that writer at that moment. Some critics of course make fetishes of their bad moods. I am by nature as leery of them as I am of exhibitionists. The fate of a book often has less to do with its merits or demerits than with the preconceptions of the editor or critic.

I suppose I could have foregone this exposition and just said what I like about The Breakup, but I have a hunch that there are many writers and readers whose tastes run to less zany, more formal, perhaps even metaphysical work, who might dismiss Bruce Weber as I did, not recognizing that in the bizarro shenanigans and argot is much that draws us to Thomas Mann, Franz Kafka, Isaac Bashevis Singer and a number of other writers whose wisdom and import is concealed from a casual glance.

That is, of course, what the cover painting forewarns us about.

Some poets, quite a few, disguise mediocre poetry in marvelous delivery, anecdotes and other beguilements of performance. I have a hunch that much that is serious and adventurous in this poetry may be hidden in its garb. I haven’t heard Bruce Weber speak, so I’m going by the prosodic stunts and acrobatics I see in the poems on the page.

Weber knows what makes New York City the capital city of kookiness and creativity. Isaac Singer could sit on a park bench on Upper Broadway and see enough in a day to write a great story. But one gets the distinct impression Weber gets around. He knows how different the two villages are. He knows Canarsie from Crown Heights, Park Slope from Brooklyn Heights. And he has a sharp eye for how New Yorkers let it all hang out. He knows, in short, why a genuine New Yorker, myself included, can’t imagine living anywhere else in the world. But everything is local, and by having such viral local knowledge the poet possesses universal knowledge. This of course was Singer’s secret.

Some of these poems are columnar, rooftop antenna sending and receiving, as terse as Morse Code. Sometimes they appear en bloc in the style of the French poet Max Jacob or Gertrude Stein, sparing of punctuation and dependent on the exuberance of the language to carry the poem rather than its metrics. I admire poetry that does not rely on punctuation for clarity, and I think that e.e. cummings and W.S. Merwin are hardly the definitive practitioners of this manner, however marvelous their work.

Bruce Weber
Bruce Weber

what

did

sally

saw

that

made

her

jump

out

of

her

scrawny

body?

or

ran into blood on the avenue last night. informed me about the gash sally took in the head from her boyfriend stewy and how she had to make a visit to the emergency room. second time this week she had to do that.

This work owes not a little to Weber’s New York School forerunners, James Schuyler and Frank O’Hara. They drained the hieratic and hifalutin out of poetry and talked about their friends fooling around or just enjoying an ice cream cone on Fire Island. Some critics have said they eschewed the pretentiousness of poets like T.S. Eliot and Djuna Barnes. I’m by no means prepared to embrace such an indictment of Eliot and Barnes. They were just different. We get into a lot of foolish trouble when we make such comparisons, and it calls for not a little showing off. Such critics were trying to air out the fustiness of the New Criticism, which had overreached.

don cherry yeah don and me were two peas in a pod. back in those days don and charlie haden and ed blackwell and me were living on lower second avenue and hanging out all night around the corner at the five spot playing tunes and ragging on each other till the sun turned cherry red.

When I was a young man studying in Manhattan you couldn’t have convinced me that is poetry. I would have said you were putting me on. Today I recognize it as the patois that often is the stuff of very good poetry, in the same way that jive and rap can make for riveting poetry. The kind of snobbery I exhibited as a young man is what is still keeping Huddy Ledbetter out of the pantheon of great American poets. It is not the snobbery of the academy but rather of a narrow and perhaps pretentious idea of what poetry is.

We say, for example, that poetry is not well read, not popular. We say it doesn’t sell well. Hmm. The Bible, the Qu’ran, rap, country, rai-they don’t sell well? What are these people talking about? What in hell is their definition of poetry? Alas, it’s as limiting as mine was as a young man. I could dig Djuna Barnes. Eliot, Crane, Dickinson. I mined Pound’s interminable cantos. But you could not convince me Frank O’Hara was a major poet. I was a boy and I had not yet encountered the right people to open my eyes. To this day there are many people who would have remained immune to Crane’s achievement were it not for Harold Bloom, his learned paladin.

There is something of smart-phone expedition in Weber’s poems. He omits articles and prepositions, tacitly declaring them excess baggage, rather like packing light for flight. He foreshadows a language lighting up on consoles and flashing on screens. And he fathoms beautifully the plosiveness of Anglo-Saxon words, using words like “just” and “step” and “come” by themselves on a line because they are explosive charges. In this way he is not unlike a sapper, placing a charge exactly where it will do the most good or damage or both. He knows what rappers know, that Anglo-Saxon doesn’t need to be strung out or amplified or modified. It is an extraordinarily percussive language that can be treated much as Japanese gardeners treat sand and stone gardens.

Indeed Weber is something of a rooftop gardener in poetry, creating espaliers against walls, moving pebbles about. His poems are quintessentially urban but not urbane-they’re too raw and street-savvy for that. But there is also in him something of the rhapsode. He winds himself up to the point where the reader begins to worry for his sanity, particularly in the prose poems. He fathoms the nature of the wicked impulse the same way artists do, the wicked impulse that is never far from the divine.

I would very much like to know how, say, a dozen English poets might respond to his work. They know how cockney sounds, Liverpudlian and all their other argots, and they know to what extent these sounds speak to them. What, I wonder, would they make of Weber’s Noo Yawk sound? Would they admire its vitality, its impudence and wide-armed humanity? I wonder. I think of the English poet Jim Burns, a scholar of our Beat Era, and I commend Weber to him.

Upon a third reading of The Breakup I think “hi i’m marilyn monroe” is my favorite poem, perhaps because it best exemplifies my contention that Weber is much deeper than he seems at a casual look. A bearded man is telling the reader he’s Marilyn and if you don’t believe it you’re stupid, stupid, stupid. I believe it. I’m getting forgetful but not yet stupid.

hi. i’m marilyn. yes beautiful beautiful marilyn. you know. the gal who died of an overdose of barbiturates.

later in the poem he asks:

whatever happened to billy wilder? is he one of those disinherited directors? and elia kazan? whatever happened to elia kazan?

I like many things about this poem. There is, of course, the implication of reincarnation. But on another plane Marilyn is part of our national psyche. We carry her in our heads. If we quarrel with Weber’s using the word beautiful twice we miss the point that that’s Hollywood, repeating itself endlessly just in case we don’t get it the first time. Just in case we don’t get Marilyn’s overstated beauty, the hype that engulfed and killed her, just in case we miss how ephemeral and fleeting our culture is.

Weber is on the loose in a shop of American artifacts, of Americanisms, of our foibles and eccentricities. He has spent the night there and done a great deal of damage, rearranging everything, rearranging our heads. He is like a guest who rearranges everything in our house during his stay. In Arizona they would be checking his documents. In New York he’s just another loony with the gift of making us revel in our own looniness. New York is his license, his document. Where else would he be at home? I don’t know. But I hope he doesn’t move any time soon, because we need all the inspired zanies we can get.