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Instead of Optimism

Mark Young, Lunch Poems, Soapbox Press, Auckland, 2009.
Michael Steven, Centreville Springs, Kilmog Press, Dunedin, 2009.
Reviewed by SCOTT HAMILTON


From 1951 until his violent death in 1966, Frank O’Hara spent his weekdays at the Museum of Modern Art, working his way from the gift shop till to a senior curator’s office. In his lunch hours O’Hara liked to walk the streets around the museum, eat a sandwich, drink a coffee, and write a poem or two about whatever he saw and whatever was on his mind. When Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Press had published the Lunch Poems in 1964, O’Hara was established as one of the leading members of the ‘New York School’ of postwar poets that also included John Ashbery and Kenneth Koch.

O’Hara was a man who lived for the moment, and he would probably be amused to know that his lunchtime compositions can nowadays be read for their historical value, as well as their wit and energy. By following the movements of his body and mind so attentively, O’Hara’s poems provide readers with an impressionistic portrait of the social and intellectual life of a city that had become the de facto capital of the postwar world.

The Lunch Poems are famously ebullient. As he walks amongst ‘the hum-colored cabs’ of Manhattan, O’Hara celebrates the energy of America, and his own appetite for life. O’Hara recognises no distinction between high and low art, and can be as enthusiastic about the second-rate Hollywood actress Lana Turner as he is about Charlie Parker. He looks lustfully at the Puerto Rican construction workers who make the streets of Manhattan ‘beautiful and warm’, and takes extraordinary pleasure in eating a sandwich and downing a coffee, but he can also fall on his knees before a canvas by Mark Rothko or another of the stern metaphysicians of the Abstract Expressionist school of art. If the embittered, cynical Philip Larkin is the voice of the postwar decline of the British Empire, then his contemporary O’Hara is the bard of American society during the zenith of its power and self-belief.

Mark Young lives far from any centre of imperial power, in the north Queensland town of Rockhampton, and his own Lunch Poems can be read as both a tribute to and an adaption of O’Hara’s masterpiece. Wandering the hot streets and half-deserted strip mall of his adopted home, Young employs a casual, self-deprecating tone, and often finds his subject matter accidentally, but he is able to find complex strata of meaning in the most mundane objects and events. In this, of course, he resembles his New York hero.

The upbeat mood of O’Hara’s Lunch Poems is absent from Young’s book, and it is hard not to relate this absence to the very different times that Young is writing in. The ‘late capitalist’ consumer society that was being born in O’Hara’s America has spread around the world, and long ago colonised the little towns that cling to the interstices of sea, rainforest, cane field and swamp in Australia’s far north. American-style capitalism has been tremendously successful at perpetuating and extending itself, but the environmental damage and economic chaos that seem to be its corollaries have inspired fear and loathing around the world. It is hard, in the era of global warming and chronic financial crisis, for a poet to feel the same instinctive optimism about the future that marks O’Hara’s oeuvre. Certainly, Young’s Lunch Poems lack the swagger and assurance of O’Hara’s work, as they struggle with a reality which seems chaotic and inscrutable:

Nothing makes sense
anymore. Everything
does.

It would be easy to suggest that the glum tone of many of Young’s poems reflects the frustrations of writing poetry in one of the most conservative, philistine regions of Australia, the heartland of Pauline Hanson’s xenophobic political movement. Young does complain occasionally about the ‘town of the/ collectively unconscious’ in which he lives and works, but the source of the unease of his Lunch Poems is just as often located far away:

Having to step
over the urine stream
left by a just-passed
cattle truck causes
me to lose my
mental balance
right at the moment
when I was about
to comprehend the
intricacies of the effect
of subprime mortgages
on the economy of
the United States.

Young’s poems are full of satisfying jibes at the apostles of ‘economic liberalism’:

At the sandwich shop
Paul Simon is
busy telling me that
I can call him Al just
as a bus goes past
whose emblazoned arse
tells me that local
real estate broker Al
Lewis is above the
crowd, ahead of
the pack – though
if that’s true, then
what’s he doing at the
back of the bus?

I wonder whether Al Lewis’ ebullience has survived the worldwide slump in housing prices over the last year. Perhaps Young’s ‘provincial’ position in Rockhampton makes him more rather than less representative of the billions of people around the world who are worrying right now about the minutae of economics. Perhaps, in this era of unprecedented globalisation, we are all living on the margins, far from obscure economic and political forces that determine our fates, buffeted by storms that always blow in from over the horizon.

Michael Steven
Michael Steven

Lunch Poems is the latest product from Soapbox Press, the publishing company founded two years ago in Michael Steven’s Grey Lynn bedroom. It’s unlikely that Steven will make Unlimited’s next list of Up and Coming Entrepeneurs – like Lawrence Ferlinghetti, he publishes out of a love for poetry, not a love of money – but his indefatigable work as a publisher, proofreader, critic, and organiser of readings makes him worthy of a place near the top of any list of leading cultural activists in today’s Auckland. Steven is best-known for encouraging and publishing other people’s work, but he is a poet in his own right, and Dunedin’s Killmog Press has given him his due by issuing a handsome selection of his texts.

Steven is a well-read and immensely serious man, and he has participated enthusiastically in the good-natured polemics about poetic style which have been a feature of the Auckland literary scene in recent times. In one riposte to a critic, Steven linked his work to that of his friend Jen Crawford, claiming that they are both members of the ‘despised school of sentimental abstraction’. Few other poets would have the courage to take a pejorative term like ‘sentimental’ and pin it to their chest.

Like Mark Young, Steven is influenced by the New York poets of the fifties and sixties, but the poems of Centreville Springs look to John Ashbery rather than Frank O’Hara for their main inspiration. Ashbery was always a much more solemn, serious man than his friend O’Hara, and his work is usually less personal and more abstract than the Lunch Poems. Ashbery himself once compared reading one of his poems to sitting in a restaurant and hearing fragments of several conversations simultaneously. A poem called ‘Event(s)’ shows both the strengths and the weaknesses of the style Steven has learnt from Ashbery:

Glasses quarrel, slapping the tabletops –
ice-cubes refract a measured assurance.
Tonight we have chartered the same return
succumbing to a clock’s ceaseless drift,
the recess of our darkening music.

Reading these lines is a little like eating a large bowl of whipped cream: what seems at first delicious eventually becomes a little too rich, and we long for more ordinary fare to give it contrast. By refusing to attach his pronouns to any recognisable characters, Steven disappoints the expectations that his own poem has aroused. He offers us a mystery, but no clues. Some of his images, like the ceaselessly drifting clock, are splendidly vivid, but others, like the one in the last line, seem vague and pretentious.

In two of the best poems in Centreville Springs, Steven retreats from ‘pure’ abstraction and creates portraits of milieux in which he has lived. In ‘Worcester Street’, the poet recalls Christchurch’s druggy, nihilistic underworld:

Johnny (the Pirate)
dealt Ritalin and morphine
across the hall,
teaching the young girls
who caught their first habits
in his crowded room,
how to walk Latimer Square
& Manchester St.

Every morning
in the communal bathroom,
I would watch his girls
rinsing their syringes
complaining
about how much money
they’d really made
& how much they still owed.

In the lengthy ‘Matakana’ Steven finds a balance between the abstraction of poems like ‘Event(s)’ and the no-frills realism of ‘Worcester Street’. Mixing mysterious personal details with sociological observation, Steven builds up a complex portrait of a small coastal town north of Auckland:

The town matriarch spends
her winters in the south of Spain;
the schnauzer boards at a private kennel.
Her son’s a speed dealer…

The fish merchant is busy,
readying his store for Labour weekend…

In that neglected carpark, thick with
protracted smoke,
we watched kids growing up into boredom…

I sit at the porch
losing my mind in a cup of tea –
moths leap eagerly at the windowpane.

It won’t be popular with the Tourism Board, but ‘Matakana’ is a subtle, sophisticated poem which opens up a new road for Michael Steven to travel down.

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Scott Hamilton is an Auckland writer and reviewer. More of Scott’s writing can be found at the Reading the Maps Blog.

5 comments:

  1. larrydalooza, 2. April 2009, 7:14

    Thank AGW for the religious left. This AGW damn CO2 is killing us all. AGW bless America. Oh my AGW, I can’t believe we almost boiled the Earth.

     
  2. Ross Brighton, 7. April 2009, 11:22

    I’m not sure about the comments made re steven’s work, ie:

    “Reading these lines is a little like eating a large bowl of whipped cream: what seems at first delicious eventually becomes a little too rich, and we long for more ordinary fare to give it contrast. By refusing to attach his pronouns to any recognisable characters, Steven disappoints the expectations that his own poem has aroused. ”

    This seems far too prescriptive for me, judgements of taste dressed up like those of quality. I for one am always happy to see more experimentality (however one decides to define such a term), more innovation, more movement away from the expected modes of baxter-aping (no offence ment to jkb, just his immitators)… if i may quote Wytan Curnow’s “High Culture Now!”, availible through the NZEPC,

    “A more important problem or puzzle which the [poetry anthology]editors have left to their successors is the extraordinary sameness of recent poetry or their selection of it, a fact made more obvious by the odd decision to begin their book [The Oxford Anthology of New Zealand Poetry in English] in the present and work backwards. Since one of the few claims they make is for the diversity of their collection the sameness of it must arise largely from a blindness to it. The first 100 pages or more consist mainly of short lyric poems each of which is unified by a voice, one which does not change much from poem to poem, author to author. Usually colloquial, and in the first person, these poems concern themselves almost exclusively with personal feelings, shifts in individual consciousness, as if this was all that poetry could do. In a decade during which the news and entertainment media increasingly personalize and privatize social and political problems, sentimentalize and sensationalize all emotion, this kind of poetry seems a part of the problem of public language in our culture rather than a critical response to it. This kind of poem was designed for the passionless people Gordon McLaughlin once accused us of being, but today everyone is passionate about everything they do, at least they had better be. The new forms of thought and feeling proposed by L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry were a response to corruption of public language in America, and yet the editors of the Oxford dismiss them as another foreign fad. In this they are not alone. Policing the boundaries of the ruling forms with cheap passing shots at L=poetry is as close as we get to serious debate in the poetry world these days.”

    Any break from the local equivalents of Ron Silliman’s “school of Quietude” of Charles Bernstein’s “Official Verse Culture” are to be welcomed rather than eshewed with confusion or backing away toward the familliar world of “more ordinary fare”. What use is this bland food but to prop up existing assumptions about the function of art, prop up the homogenising culture industry, prop up the state apparatus?

     
  3. Scott, 7. April 2009, 17:11

    Interesting points Ross. The difficulty I have with the passage in question is that it seems to me to gesture towards some semi-concealed meaning, and yet does not provide us with tools to search for that meaning. I don’t think that Language poets like Silliman abolish narrative and logical argument so much as disperse them. If you look through a page of a typical Silliman text, you’ll see various ‘clues’ which can fitted together and made into a narrative. A Silliman poem is a bit like a kitset model that the reader has to assemble.

    If a Steven poem can be considered in the same terms, then I would suggest that ‘Event(s)’ lacks a couple of key pieces which the reader needs in order to assmeble his model.

    You raise the issue of the politics of a Language poem. I don’t share your belief that the likes of Silliman and Wysten Curnow have much to do with the left these days. Curnow hasn’t been on a demonstration since the sixties, and Silliman morphed into an unpaid military advisor to Goerge Dubya Bush after 9/11. At a deeper level, I think that the abstract poetry represented by the Language school is connected to the destruction of regional and cultural difference by globalising capitalism. I’ve made this argument in detail at my blog:
    http://readingthemaps.blogspot.com/2009/02/reasons-for-choosing-smithyman-over.html
    Feel free to come and argue with me.

    Cheers
    Scott

     
  4. Ross Brighton, 8. April 2009, 15:55

    I wasnt necessaraly stating an agreement with Ron, whose comments on Issue One, for example, i find somewhat ludicrous (I agree with the other ron (Klassnik) on that one – and language poetry has lost a lot of its social bite these days. That is not to say it, or what is “coming after” lost its potential.

    If one looks at Adorno’s comments on the ineffectiveness of overtly political art, which i think have a lot of merit, the only socially responsible way to politicise art is through a performative ethics, I’m thinking here of the application of Levinas’ ethics by Steve McCaffery (in Prior to Meaning: the Protosemantic and Poetics) and Gerrald L Bruns (“Should Poetry be Ethical or Otherwise).
    The potential here i think is massive, as is that of the kind of discussions that go on around blogs like Johannes Gorranson’s (http://exoskeleton-johannes.blogspot.com/), and Ron Klassnik’s (http://rauanklassnik.blogspot.com/).

    But i think i’ve rambled of point. The issue i took was mainly with the wording, “ordainary fare” seemed to imply a dislike of what did not fit into the mould of “traditional NZ verse”, and i was simply quoting Wystan to make a point there, and the comment about pronouns seems to dismiss out of hand pretty much anything Lyn Hejinian or Bruce Andrews has done.

    I’m looking through the piece on your blog, and the ensuing discussion; and may contribute. Thanks.

     
  5. Richard Taylor, 17. June 2009, 2:05

    I think Scott’s point about Steven’s ‘abstract’ passage as quoted is wrong – it is good poetry. The ambiguity is am as much modernist as it is postmodernist.

    As to Silliman – I don’t see his poems as narrational at all (there is no kitset to put together per se – there is certainly meaning the reader can supply as with e.g Andrews also and others – indeed this extends to many if not all poets and writers, and yes, the involvment of the reader in constructing (ro deconstructing?) meaning or semantic or psyho-semantic siginfication, while not unique to the Langpos, is more important in that kind of writing as practiced by Silliman and Bernstein, Andrews, the Howe sisters, Heijinian, McCaffery etc ) – his work is more about structures and language itself. There is a political signification in almost all literary work -itsint necessary to push for ethics as poetry creates its own ethsic – what is needed is some structure or modus operandi (as indeed even in Eliot’s ‘objective corellative’ or the “instant” structures of Stein) – Silliman chose the alphabet (as in his whole series of 26 books) , and say the fibonnacci series (as in Tjanting) as well as the concept of dialectics – that is -the Hegellian or Marxiian dervied thesis, syntheis, and then antithesis. The form of his sentences “follows ” or does homage to that. How far that leads us to politics, or politics as in language, in Sillman is problematic; but the language poetry movement had its orgins in a Utopian ideal (Lyn Heijinian says this in an interview) as it was “born” in those who were of my generation (but I myself wasn’t in any literary movement in the 60s!) who protested the Vietnam war etc and also they, the Lang poets, were influenced by The Russian experimental writers (who were inspired in part by the Russian Revolution) ; as well as Stein, Olson and the Black Mountain writers and musicians etc, art of the 20th Century, jazz and improvisation, the NY poets, the East Coast Poets and also the Beats and others. Also Ashbery etc – who was close friend of O’Hara and Schuyler etc

    That said I like the range shown here in Steven’s work – one reads (say) Silliman or O’Hara (or either or both of the Curnows in NZ) and then takes one’s own “take” on the creative act.

    Silliman has – with the Language Poets – done a lot for writing. The Language poety movment is still vitally important for writing everywhere. What Silliman’s politics are at present is irrelevant – he did seem to move Right (around 9/11 times) but I don’t think he supported Bush (in any capacity) at any time – I know that Antin, Silliman and others supported the Afghanistan invasion and the anti terrorist policy at one stage – whereas I think others of the Language movement did not – but I hadn’t heard he was involved with the military; the times round 9/11 were very chaotic and frightening in the US and elsewhere in the world which led to some confusion in the Left.

    And whether W Curnow has been on any political demonstrations (whenever) is also irrelevant. He could still have very strong political ideas. Those are his. And I feel that he is a significant NZ poet and art writer, and I admire much of his and his father’s work. I prefer some of Wystan’s writings to much of Alan Curnow’s in fact – but they are different writers of course.

    But even Silliman did (strongly support Bush and in a military adivisory role also) he wouldn’t be the only major or significant poet to have conflicting (or even “ugly”) political views.

    But I don’t think we need to look only to the Langpos (the Symbolists are as relevant here,as are the NY Poets and some English and NZ experimenters) – Steven’s influences has been very wide and include US but also poets such as Vallejo and many others – poets in NZ – in fact he is one of the most informed poets (particularly on poetry itself) who writes and recites I have met.

    And the poems in that book he wrote are great.