Monday, November 27, 2006

Sun, by Michael Palmer.


I may or may not have been pushing the envelope in the last few papers, in terms of providing the sort of argument the syllabus calls for... but I am going to push a bit further just now because I am so sleep deprived and exhausted at right now that I cannot help but consider what effect that has on my reading and writing. For starters, I'm feeling both irritated and irascible, and that puts Palmer at a disadvantage that did not influence my reading of Hejinian or Mullen. I think that has to be acknowledged. Perhaps more productively, sleep deprivation always makes me (and just about everyone else?) emotional, in ways that noticeably differ from the disinvestment and measured alienation described in the Fischer essay. I felt much of the Palmer strongly on a gut level, but this may have had little to do with his poetry or intended effect. If one's tired enough, anything becomes touching and relevant.

As a tradeoff, I'm going to suppress my easiest inclination, which is to talk about Palmer and postmodernism, and why I somewhat love it and mostly hate it. Of course, I'm willing to rewrite the paper from scratch if this fails to provide anything useful or accumulative.

* * * * *

I did not find the text to be particularly uncooperative or incorrigible.

Obviously, I was unable to follow a continuous lyrical or narrative arc. However, the poems themselves were musical enough, almost always establishing a repetitive and accelerating tempo ("A man undergoes pain sitting at a piano / knowing thousands will die while he is playing" (19), "Let us number all the sentences beginning with one / then one plus one. Here" (67)). The rhythmic effect was emphasized further by a reliance on short stanzas, particularly couplets, and frequent, if unexpected, rhymes that seemed to appear out of nowhere ("I'm fine I'm fine I'm really going blind / It's a joy to be alive" (23)). In this sense, the poetry was reminiscent of Cummings, albeit that Cummings could usually be decoded to arrive at a discrete story or message.

Still, the Fischer essay seems to point to deliberate self-effacement through the annihilation (too melodramatic; avoidance, then) of "voice" as a necessary consequence of the instability of the self and language. Palmer's Wikipedia article (which is itself quite comprehensive) drives in the same direction:

Michael Palmer's poetry has received both praise and criticism over the years. While some reviewers or readers may value Palmer's work as an "extension of modernism"[13], they criticize and even reject Palmer's work as discordant: an interruption of our composure (to invoke Robert Duncan's phrase) [14]. Palmer's own stated poetics will not allow or settle for "vanguard gesturalism"[15]. In a singular confrontion with the modernist project, the poet must suffer 'loss', embrace disturbance and paradox, and agonize over what cannot be accounted for.

That may be all well and good, but I don't know that I buy it in terms of Sun itself. If nothing else, voice may be just as communicable through rhythmic signature and variation (as I described above) as in narrative and meaning as, say, an improvised jazz solo may be just as attributable as a recorded song with lyrics. The latter has an advantage, particularly in terms of categorization and description, but this is a different concern. Moreover, there is thematic repetition in Sun, and if this never orders itself into a traditional, linear argument, it is nevertheless present. Animals and anthropomorphism, for example, is common ("Gay as a skylark today / you say" (23), "My cat has twelve toes, like poets in Boston," (31), "Mr. Duck and Mr Mouse / mass as shadows" (60)), as is Palmer's rhyming technique. Half-rhymes are common, but true rhymes spring up idiosyncratically, just rarely enough to surprise me. The overall effect of these motifs and techniques is not unlike Alice in Wonderland. I'm wandering through a world that certainly doesn't make linear sense, and may not even make circular sense. It is nevertheless a world of light and color and trees and people and animals. The vocabulary, therefore, is familiar, and in a way that might even constitute "voice" in the traditional sense.

And yet, I am not fully convinced that Palmer himself believes that "all things, time and human experience, are empty" (Fischer – 10). If nothing else, his poems seem too charged with meaning to subscribe to such a nihilistic (or, evidently, Buddhist) cosmology. In defense of this the same Wikipedia article quotes Palmer of his own sense of remove from the Language poets: "My own hesitancy comes when you try to create, let's say, a fixed theoretical matrix and begin to work from an ideology of prohibitions about expressivity and the self-there I depart quite dramatically from a few of the Language Poets." And that statement, succinct as it is, goes quite beyond Fischer's more provisional statement: "I find the occasional sound of someone's voice to be a welcome relief, even if it is fake."

If I'm making an argument here, it's an argument against false dichotomies. The Fischer essay implies states (Fischer – 4) that because notions of self and identity are problematic and paradoxical and invested with the ambiguities of language, they are therefore "false." This strikes me somewhat like saying that China does not exist, because I cannot prove it exists in a single given moment. While I don't know Palmer well enough to understand his intentions in this compositions, he is a writer that assembled poems into a collection that he named. He divided that collection into six sections, and subdivided them into a number of discrete but untitled "pieces." Some pieces were spread, irregularly, over several pages, taking advantage of ample empty space. Others were ordered more conventionally. Some sections were more conventional than others, the first Sun (section five), acting as a single extended poem, and the Baudelaire Series visually disordered. These individual poems were ordered into stanzas, and took advantage of alternation between irregular sounds in a somewhat regular rhythm and explicit use of meter and cadence. All of these choices leave distinct impressions, as do the images he incorporate. Not a very self-effacing approach. Sun, then, strikes me as a piece that is immersed in the difficulty and paradox of identity, not its denial. Which seems a much more interesting problem to me, and was an aspect of what I found to be so mesmerizing in Anne Carson's Plainwater.

Anne Carson will probably be the new "favorite poet" I take away from this class.



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