An audio-video interpretation by Chris Mooney-Singh
Eleanor Smagarinsky emailed on Sept 27 in response to my coining of the term 'literary bling' poetry versus formalist poetry in the example of Clive James' recent poem published in the New Yorker.
Ouyang Yu does say that he chooses poets and poems - for translation - with whom he can engage on a personal level, and I don’t think he ever claims to be “objective” in his love for one poetic style over another. I find that incredibly refreshing, because it gives me a subjective window through which to begin viewing a foreign language and culture. I can get an objective summary of the history of traditional Chinese poetry from a text book. But then, I love literary bling, literary bling!! Swooning with delight!! Traditional literary garb leaves me cold, although I’m trying to engage with it now because it’s necessary for the craft. But when it comes to passion, give me bling, bling, more bling!!
But are we talking about content or form here? Or both?
I’ve been thinking about this issue quite a bit these last couple of days, especially in the context of Clive James’ poem “Japanese Maple”. Autumnal trees are traditional literary garb, and I appreciate them objectively (as I do the poetic craft), but that’s where it ends for me. Personally, I prefer the last stanza of Shu Cai’s poem “Demolition” –
“Demolish it, demolish it, demolish it
Quick, write the word on the wall
And circle it with a circle”
What is trad garb -- rhyme and metre and a contemplative tone? Versus ranty ranty -- 'Hu flung dung' against the wall? (Sorry very bad school boy joke :-) ). The way I see it is there's a time for all. What is beautiful in James' immaculate use of form and rhyme for me is like the modesty of knowledge worn lightly without the brouhaha. The craft required to do what he did is undeniable. The constraint, the intelligence required to work within it. The gesture toward revolution against tradition is highly understandable, especially in this Chinese socio-political context. But the political need for freedom to rant and object is just that -- a gesture that is also limited by its social context and may in the future die with it. This need to up-end tradition is generally a younger artist (angry young man/woman) need to assert and throw off 'fusty trad garb' like parental control, in the belief that youth has a clearer picture of things which is not always true, although the energy is admirable and desirable. God! I'm sounding older than my years. LOL. (BTW in case you don't know I'm the guy to started Poetry Slam in Singapore and Malaysia which is going strong after a decade.)
When one looks at the model of Stein, the innovator and her phenomenology of objects -- it's a century old story. Like Pound and Williams. I don't doubt their importance and impact. However, in the desire to innovate and refresh what had slid into decadent aesthetics has become the next platform for another aesthetic that has become 'trad garb' of another kind and may be served its use.
My point is that this incessant search for 'the new' is so often a superficial thing, an over obsession with the feeling that the container, the box needs to be redesigned every generation. I say take on James' neo-formalism alongside the modernists and practise the post-modernism of open choice - fixed or free form according to thematic circumstance. There is nothing particularly virtuous about form for form's sake, nor the breaking of the poetic line etc. It's been broken. How many more ways do we want to break it? (To do that requires knowledge of what you are breaking IMO) In the long run, if the poem does not resonate deeper human experience no amount of formal or informal structure will save a poem. And if the term 'deeper human experience' is a worry in an age of doubt' then why bother writing the poetry of the clever at all? There has to be a Jack to come out of the box. The box aint enough.
That's the 'content' you ask me about - the guts, the soul-essence, the emotional integrity of the poem. There is a lot of cleverness around. Bling poets abound. There always were in past times. They lose their sparkle. For me, the language experimentalists are at one end of the post-modern spectrum -- at the other end I think is neo-formalism which never died in Britain and arose in the US in the 1990s. As I see it neo-formalism filled a gap as the last modernist polemists died off one by one. No one really of stature has filled the ranks of a Pound, Stein or Williams. Thus, the wheel re-turned (it's not the 'old' -- it's just a turn of the cycle). Good Neo-formalists poems use trad tricks in an contemporary context shucking off the bad habits and indulgences of the decadent period Pound ranted against. Both live in the Now. Why can't we accept a 'Middle Way' and draw on all? As a poet I want to know as much as I can about my tools and craft rather than just colouring in from one end of the Derwent pencil box. Besides writing in 'trad garb' -- metre, rhyme etc just doesn't seem to die off, does it? In fact it won't in my view, because the musicality and regularity of metre is linked to physiology.
Why are the longest standing expressions of poetic literature still here? Because they are oral and memorable. They come from a belief that "metre is mantra" as Coomaraswamy says, and has sunk deep into the collective memory, passed on from one generation to the next as remembered art. Most of modernism and post-modernism is textual and despite the sweeping innovations has already split brain from body in a way. I want organically-grown poems. Metrical form is mnemonic and has deep roots that defy repeated attempts to be pulled out or poisoned at the roots.
Round One, Immortal Booze
Despite references to tankards and Scottish ‘drams’, this poem has nothing to do with alcohol. Likewise, ‘seraphs’ and ‘saint’s’ may be part of the Judeo-Christian meta-fabric, yet the core experience has many worldwide cultural correlatives suggesting the ‘elixir of immortality’. Thus I am going to look predominantly through an Indian lens using negation, the keynote of Vedic inquiry to interpret ideas in the poem through what they are not. In Sanskrit this is called the neti neti method -- ‘not this, not this’, the goal being to arrive at what ‘Is’.
Dickinson sets up her first riddle - that she has drunk an intoxicant ‘never brewed’. This isn’t your usual beery beverage of foaming ‘pearls’, nor a wine-vat distillation from the River Rhine. If “never brewed”, then what is it?
This first negative moves us to her second meta-option — being “an inebriate of air” and “debauchee of dew”, even more intense declarations of drunkenness. Again, such tropes are meant to trip us up. Neti neti. Not air, not water. This liquor is finer than the elements and drinking ‘it’ causes Emily to go “reeling through summer”, suggestive both of joyful dance and spinning in a stupor. How can this be when such intoxication comes “From inns of Molten Blue” — the ‘taverns’ of the sky? Again we’re presented paradox after paradox. Not this, not this.
The word ‘molten’ is a key, connoting lava. Heat alludes to ‘light’ whose source is the ‘Sun’. We are being led into a supra-conscious experience born of Light from the sky whose side-effect is intoxication. And those blue inns? They suggest ’the Heaven of many mansions'. In Indian philosophy it is observed that as blue permeates most of nature — the sky, ocean, rivers and lakes, it represents stability of mind and Cosmic Order. Hence Vishnu and His avatars Rama and Krishna who maintain the universe have blue skin.
Ambrosia was the nectar of immortality to the Greek gods. Amrita means the same in Sanskrit. Yoga philosophy teaches that one drop of this nectar dribbling from the pituitary gland down the throat in deep meditation is enough to conquer death. Inner light then floods and anahad (celestial) music announces Moksha, Liberation. The hallmark of this state is sublime intoxication.
The rest of the poem riddles the reader along, rough-handling nature’s blowsy nectar gatherers — bees who are ‘turned out’ by ‘’landlords” from the heavenly ‘inns’ and butterflies who leave their work. Both might also represent human beings of continuing development. These ‘inns’, are the meeting houses of the ‘Heavenly Hierarchy’, synonymous with that supra-consciousness bestowed on the rare few. In Indian cosmological parlance such planetary god-realms are known as lokas. Meanwhile, enjoying a high perceptual state, the poet is free to “drink but more’’ and even the angelic beings, the “seraphs” and saints” (neighbours) marvel at the "the little tippler” who, by the end of the poem is even able to “lean”, close and familiar to take support as an intimate friend, having realised within the self the awesome power of the Sun, meaning Brahman, the indefinable 'Isness' behind the universes.
Round Two 'Immortal Booze'
Likening Emily's poem to riddles is a brilliant. I very much like your approach of "not this, not this" in order to get to what "is" especially your "not air, not water" deduction. Your heaven of many mansions seems also to work. The blue representing stability and order might be ironic here because she is speaking of reeling and drunkenness. You have a very" enlightening" and unique interpretation of this poem. You are right, her poem is not about alcohol but her drunkenness of life through metaphors of summer days of light and heat. I want to hear more of what you think it "is" at the end. And I wonder what you would say about what the poem "does"- how does it work?
Thanks for asking about the 'Is-factor' hinted at in my interpretation. Yes, i did run out of space, so thought it best to leave the discussion open. As you have asked, I will share more of my thoughts.
I have purposely avoided a post-modern analysis imposing a reductivist reading of ED's apparent human ego-state which speaks more to our age of doubt and need for empirical interpretation which I have read in some discussions at ModPo 2014 Also, by viewing the poem merely through the lens of modernist aesthetics there is a tendency to concentrate inordinately on 'form' rather than 'content'. I believe they go together. Aesthetic understanding alone, I believe, only achieves a basic level of functional interpretation and does not explore other possibilities the poet may be trying to represent which may enter the realm of philosophical speculation and belief. A great poet/poem is like the ice-berg with only the tip exposed. The depths remain. This is the reason poetry endures many readings compared with prose.
As for drunkenness and disorder, according to classical Hindu bhakti, Sikh and Sufi accounts of spiritual intoxication we are looking at a highly-ordered state of perceptual coherence. It's a paradox. From the perspective of our normal 10 percent brainpower, limited consciousness we think of dysfunction. However those experiencing expanded supra-conscious life (the seraphs and saints) exist in both a state of highest bliss (anand) while operating rationally within the world. "Heads in Heaven, feet on earth'. In the Bhagavad Gita this state is called 'Yoga' referring to the ability of 'think on a cosmic level, yet also perform day to day tasks with 'skill in action'. Yoga (comes from the Sanskrit root 'to yoke' the parts and integrate all the 'limbs') Perhaps consider such supra-awareness as the compound eye of a bee, which has hundreds of individual eyes (known as ommatidia) aligned with one another other, yet each with its own lens and each looking in a different direction, yet also able to operate as one visionary unit at the same time. A supra-conscious individual literally 'sees' through every pore in their body and does not identify with their human form while still living and operating through it. There is no disorder or 'drunken behaviour' where disorder is suggestive of dullness and sensory impairment. "Before enlightenment chop wood and carry water, after enlightenment chop wood and carry water.)
As for the 'how' of the poem, using the 'neti-neti' riddle approach each stanza distinguishes between 4 stages of understanding 1) Bodily consciousness 2) Material consciousness of the natural order 3) first metaphysical conceit representing a non-material reality 4) Final elevation of individual consciousness to a state of Supra-consciousness 'validated' by the presence of other spiritual peers - angels and liberated souls in the presence of the ultimate reality -- Brahman, the unbounded all-knowing Self, the eye of the world. Such descriptions defy explanation and can be best understood here through poetic metaphors such as the Sun, meaning the physical light generating the manifest universe as well as the unmanifest light of understanding behind the multiple universes as expressed through Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism, Sufism and Buddhism, each which bring their own symbolic representations to share similar findings. Interestingly the 4 above mentioned categories might be equated with the four stages of consciousness 1) Waking 2) Sleeping 3 Dreaming 4 Transcendental Consciousness, known as the Turiya state.
Finally, is obvious that ED's idiosyncratic punctuation and syntax are deployed toward her ultimate meaning as intellectual markers that act as director's pointers on a musical score to indicate how to 'read' her. To enjoy my musical interpretation of the poem click on the link above the original essay.
Warm regards, Chris.
Immortal Booze Round 3
Eilish A Hansen of Modpo writes:
Chris, my first introduction to you was through your musical rendition of the poem - and i so enjoyed it - enthralled with the eclecticism - and am i wrong, in thinking there is a hint of playfulness (which is found so often in ED's work) - i have always been fascinated by, the parallels found in western and eastern ideologies, and comparative studies - there is no doubt, in my mind, that what Emily is getting at is paravidya; that, it can not be taught in any conventional sense, ultimately it is 'beyond', and possibly, it can not be known. As in the Vedic tradition, it is through the grace of a Guru (having attained enlightenment) that one experiences such 'Knowledge' - Emily is a Guru. There are so many parallels - however in doing this comparison i think you have forced the framework of the Vedas on the poem and this makes your argument less compelling. I think Emily herself has employed (comparatively speaking) Vedic inquiry within the poem, but this does not translate as well when 'analyzing' the poem, again, it feels forced and looses coherence. Never the less, this is one of the more thought provoking essays i have read here - and i agree with your premise; 'the core experience has many worldwide cultural correlatives suggesting the ‘elixir of immortality'.' Bravo! - Eilish
I'm glad this attracted your attention and personally I agree this is ED plugging into Paravidya, the Supreme Knowledge bank (a name on the border on the Nameless up the among the Inns of Molten Blue beyond wordily philosophical and critical frameworks. I would be interested to see where you feel the argument is specifically forced. My attempt was playful, of course as I think critique should be when interpreting art that certainly is. We should not take ourselves so seriously to think we've 'got it'. No one ultimately 'gets Emily' which means there is no end to our enjoyment. Summation is death. Surrender to Ignorance is bliss. After all everyone looks bee-eyed at things with their individual compound ommatidia vision Let's thank Ms Queen Bee ED for the fact we are foolishly attempting to wrangle her poem like rodeo calf ropers a century after she wrote this. LOL.
I would, however contend that holding this nineteenth century poem up to a Western critical framework and reading it through the idea of say mytho-historicism, semiotics, gender studies, queer theory, post-colonial studies, any number of whatevers, or the Big Mother of them all today -- Post-structuralism might be equally forced. Post-modern theory generally purports there are only relative truths and subjective outcomes because all frames ultimately 'bleed' and become unstable and de-centred which leads us all back to the Go square of the Western board game -- Monopoly that invented this pleasant game. I am now thinking that is why Al and the A-team are busy with 'close reading' which may be a way to find relative meanings in a number of given words/phrases in a poem even if those meanings conflict with other parts of the poem as if each word is a place to dive independently into the river course of the poem as a whole.
On an East-West note which you raised, by determining the frame, however, we claim intellectual property rights and risk cultural hegemony which was Said's argument against Orientalism, that political Western form of colonialism which even extended to the library shelf. Am I diverting here? Yes of course! Only because my playful summer rort is intended to turn tables on that idea and in so doing claim Emily for the ancient Eastern fort in this universe of absurd critical gamesmanship. Although she had certainly read some Emerson, and, while not a paid-up subscriber of the New England Transcendentalists she would probably feel at home with a cosmology as broad as can be found in India, I think. Have a great day and thanks for the opportunity to gas a bit more. Chris.
As I ‘see' it, and I am not trained in this stuff, the object is the Idea and the Idea the object. Through the act of perception they become a unified conduit passing a current, a wave-form of energy back and forth. I am thinking of it as the traffic of light through a prism. The eye (mind/consciousness) needs to ’see’ itself and can only do that by mirroring itself in things - a mango, a pencil, a cat, a pat of cow dung, a cloud. It needs such containers, ‘jugs of atoms' to act as holding and refracting devices to catch, retain and bounce back the light, or splinter it off in new directions. Otherwise, the inward looker can only consider its abstract presence within and lives alone in an existentially insentient void. We were not meant to be lonely in the universe!
Likewise, the image/object/thing may only exist when it is registered by the perception of the viewer. The object needs its seer to become real, meaningful and significant. They are like two lovers who crave each other to express what is throbbing at the core of both.
So sight and identification with a scene, of a specific first object (first cause?) in a scene is ye olde red wheelbarrow, the central sun within a farmyard universe. As one looks and identifies through the act of looking, the object becomes the receptacle of consciousness, a holographic correlative for the act of perception that registers its own existence. The 'No ideas but in Things’ deal...as WCW puts it, is I think, really shorthand for -- Look chaps and chapettes at that red painted thingamy of ordinary utility stuck out the bland yard glistening with after-rain near the planetary bodies of chickens radiating with the light of the mind. So much depends on the viewing of it, because the object is really Me and I am recreating a poem-hologram of it for You, baby!
What’s in it for the poet, the passionate onlooker? Well it’s a bugle call to create, to work. Looking at things allows consciousness to enter the visible world and express itself with sound and fury. (This is looping back to Eliot’s Objective Correlative.) The purpose of writing then, about ‘the object’ is for us to create a reaction, or emotional response in the reader. It acts as our prism - the poet’s time machine to ride the wild beam of light. Our ray passes through the object and then into the poem, which in turn becomes a refracting glass for the reader sending the refraction onward through countless other prismatic minds. It's a Net of Indra, a cosmological web with each mind reflecting the same on to the next, or perceiving the thing in a new way and enriching the subjective first impression, adding layers of new significance. This is certainly two way, meta-mind stuff, just as the readers enrich the poem-prism by adding interpretation i.e. refracting current back through it. And the circuit of ’singing the body electric’ completes and continues. What is Walt’s body? I leave that one open.
Finally, I like Heidegger who ran further with Husserl’s phenomenology and linked it up with Eastern philosophy, ‘the zen moment’, the Taoist yin-yang nexus, yet kept us in mind:
“The poets are in the vanguard of a changed conception of Being."
So poets, onward!
Here is my first attempt at using video software based on my recent audio rendering of Emily Dickinson's poem.
What has Emily D got to do with the Red-Spotted Monkey?
If Emily D had been a Zen roshi, this poem would be her koan about the ever-permanent and un-derailable nature of the mind. The spirit of the poem with it's koan-like statements is a red-spotted monkey that jumps about from one branch of thought to another to purposefully mess with the mind's ability to focus on oneness. Initially the poem confounds. Just as the mind is its own untameable horse, or in this case an iron one on its groove of tracks, so does this poem present a train (of thought) apparently moving ahead "even" and "true" toward its pre-arranged destination. If only meditating (or reading Dickinson poems) was so easy. To hold to 'trueness', or steady mind in the contemplative sense, to stay the course as a single choice or constant is the hardest thing in the world. That is what the greatest thinkers of humanity have attempted to do -- to live in the presence of a single thought because singularity is a train tunnel that opens to multiplicity and unity. Although she is not specifically talking about meditative discipline her poem is mapping the same territory. So to discuss both may illuminate the poem.
Little Brain. Big Brain
The unskilled mind is so perversely its own master and not one-track in its workings. It may be all-powerful, a machine of machines. The trouble comes when trying to control it, to tame ir. I think that is why the metaphors introduced in the first stanza are mixed and only tangentially relate a 'story' or continuous investigation of an idea. This consciously mirrors the mind's inability to focus power and current toward one end. ED/the poem is jumping about on purpose like the red-spotted monkey to subvert the reader's expectations. The limited brain is a temporary victim of its own shut eyes, it's stuck-in-a-grooveness. The machinery of thinking can be a disorderly chaotic set of fly wheels and cogs of competing hopes and desires, memories and evaluations, fears and flippant shopping-list interruptions. The small brain is forever subject to the splintering and swerving away from the main track, the central groove of One Idea, direction.
The Net of Indra
Yes at the highest point, the big brain sits supremely atop all manifestations of nature such as floods, earthquakes, bush fires, oil spills, eco-pestilences and wars. Just as the universe may have emerged from one a single creative wham bam big bang of thought so does this poem look to the ultimate nature of individual mind power and its link with a shared cosmological consciousness all minds from human to stone may be plugged into. In the Hindu and Buddhist philosophies the concept of Indra's Net proposes that each mind is its own star of glistening pearls strung together and reflecting the same interpenetrated reality, or as Alan Watts has written:
Imagine a multidimensional spider's web in the early morning covered with dew drops. And every dew drop contains the reflection of all the other dew drops. And, in each reflected dew drop, the reflections of all the other dew drops in that reflection. And so ad infinitum. That is the Buddhist conception of the universe in an image.
Replace image for 'brain' meaning a nodal point of consciousness. Each brain reflects a holographic truth to each other mind, implying a linked web of unified brainpower that manifests the universes (yep there are countless) emerging out of Sunyata, the big Nothing. Is it then not obvious how unskilled our minds are trying to direct that immensity from our limited seats in the train of thinking? Emily is not consciously expressing an Eastern philosophical paradigm here. However she is intuitively on the same wavelength, and thus wants the reader to consider the whole 'thinking process' from a vast perspective, to take on new views of oneself in the universe. The poem is an invitation to play with the monkey.
This naughty chap comes from the lexicon of guides or gurus who teach the art of meditation. "Whatever you do, don't think of a red-spotted monkey!" Of course this is the equivalent of letting a mongoose loose in a snake pit. Or to speak in machine-age metaphors - to throw a spanner in the works. And once you have visualised the simian, black, blue, purple or red-spotted you have been 'koanised' That idea dominates. Introducing the agent of chaos challenges us to focus more vigorously. That is what ED does in the second stanza. She unleashes the fury of the flood that cuts its own groove through the mountains, diverts down a self-created turnpike of least resistance and also wipes away humanity's turning water mills that attempt to harness and control. Why does she do this? To moan about the limited nature of brain/mind/life? No I think she is pointing to the final reality after the flood, Biblical or otherwise. When the acid rain settles, when the water finds its new course the cyclical begins again commenced with a thought 'begin again' from the universally present mind. That brain survives us.
In the end, the poem is a koan, a mind-cracker. The red, black or blue-spotted monkey is just a visual representation of the unskilled, primate mind. Pick your own metaphor. This is a classical one from meditation philosophy to describe the nature of distraction. If you don't like the idea of a spotted monkey, a gorgeous man or woman will do just as well. Who can not be diverted for the short term the needs of the body? And without the spotted simian's intervention would we become aware of the interplay between order and chaos? If ED was not pointing to a deeper aspect of Mind there would be no purpose to suggest cataclysmic acts of nature like landscape-gouging floods, and the ending of human systems of progress and wealth that are nothing more than cyclical events and small beer in the life of the universal brain.
It is that awareness that leads to humility before the immense mindfulness that gives rise to the Net of Indra and in so doing enables us to learn how to let universal mind power charge through us and run the show. It is the cool call of surrender that means the death of the ego only Buddhas have learned to heed. They say we are all Buddha material and can wear the string of universal star-pearls around the neck. By acknowledging the rarity of channelled cosmic brain power, the challenge is to identify with a much broader view of reality, rather than be programmed with received doctrines. Even the idea of 'the Net of Indra' means nothing if there is no take up, no experiential application to a life. Temporary chaos throws up a challenge to see the deeper reality beyond temporary grooves we may be stuck in. Or if read on a psychological level, the same applies. People crack up and either have the ability to recover to a state of order, or they remain part of the wreckage until such time as their undying consciousness can take a new form. I guess this comes to the difference between the pessimist and the optimist seeing the glass as half empty or half full. I think ED is an optimist and the poem expresses that for me.
The ED who inhabits the field of her poem acts as the subversive 'splinter'. I am grateful to Karren Aliener and Dave Poplar who came up with the 'Splinter-Spinster' nexus. She/the poem throws a spanner in our works. She herself is the koan, the naughty, red-spotted monkey (for want of a better ridiculous trope) pointing us down the right track.
 "Alan Watts Podcast – Following the Middle Way #3. alanwattspodcast.com (Podcast). 2008-08-31.
Emily Dickinson, patron saint of the writer’s study begins her poem by drawing a distinction between two main forms of literary art: poetica and fabula, stating her preference for lyric poetry over prose narrative. The poem is an extended metaphor for a poem seen as a house which is also stands as her ars poetica.
Dickinson ‘dwells’ in a house "fairer" in shape and form. Punning she implies poetry is also more balanced, organic or ethical a structure to present ideas through than the logic box of prose. Her poetica is superior to fabula as it can also house the ethically ordered events of any unfolding narrative as in the case of epic forms. Poetry can do both because it is structurally more mysterious and subversive using “language, rhythm and melody” as Aristotle describes in the Poetics to express its meaning. As if to emphasise orality, Dickinson also uses dashes at the ends of lines as cues for the reader to flow on through incantatory phrases rather expect syntactical sentences. The way of saying is also the way of seeing. I believe many readers think of her negation of typical punctuation as a radical break with normal rules for the sake of it. This is not negation of rules, but the offering of alternative grammar. There is no paratextual evidence to suggest she was a conscious literary iconoclast. I believe she is merely cueing us pragmatically like a musical director on how to read her score. The radical move here is really one used to convey a function. This is more a song than a statement.
Eschewing fabula she installs no tables, chairs, cabinets or shelving. All would be suggestive of stories as the props of fiction. Neither is there any once-upon-a-time framework suggesting a narrative, unlike the painting of the un-named woman above. Dickinson is more interested in the poem’s formal architectural attributes. The very structure of her tight ballad four liners reinforce the overall metaphor with ‘stanza’ meaning ‘room’ in Italian.
The Dickinsonian House of Poetry develops other features that reference visionary experience. It is “numerous of windows” - transparent apertures allow for inner and outer reflection. More concretely, windows also suggest multiple points of view, just they are placed in up to four cardinal directions of any conventional dwelling. She also mentions ‘doors’, a direct gateway in and out of this house of inner revelations. Dickinson’s House alludes to the Bible: ‘In my Father’s house there are many mansions’, suggesting paradises, or Pure Lands to consider the same through Buddhist parlance. It has safe chambers that are impregnable from watchful eyes. A poem is a sanctuary. There is beauty also with walls made of pleasant cedar, or perhaps invoking cedars in their original forest form. Her whole structure is topped with the double upward-slanted ‘gambrel’ roof, an elegant architectural feature typical of American period architecture, no doubt familiar to the poet sequestered in her home town Amherst, Massachusetts.
Finally, the poem is a communal space, an interior world for brief visitation by the reader and occupant poet. In the language of science it might be said that the field of a Dickinson poem is a sub-atomic one. It is both an invocation of, and invitation to enter a contemplative realm which she is also part and parcel of, just as a quantum physicist's thoughts are a contributing factor influencing the shape of any experiment.
By the end of the poem Dickinson states her role, or a belief in the role of poets in general. It is one of her explicit statements about the spiritual art of writing, depicting herself as a shaman who prays upward to the "everlasting roof", which is the sky with outstretched branch-like arms that become divining rods for heavenly electricity as well being a radial device that can share paradisal power with the tribe.
A Doggy Life
On the way back from the Frankston Motor Registry, my Singapore-born nephew, now the proud possessor of his P-plates, drove confidently and in a celebratory mood. I was happy that learner had turned ‘chauffeur’ so that I could revert to one of the idle contentment of life – reading aloud from a new collection of poems without pressing interruptions. I decided to try out The Poem Relevancy Test with a couple of random pieces. In his early twenties and now at university, this post-modern Everyman communicates mostly through text message and is one of the vast majority of non-poetry readers. Thus, Island Earth: New and Selected Poems became the tome for some stick-the-finger-in-the-page bibliomancy while we motored through death-camp quiet suburbia.
My prime digit stopped early at some Kelen juvenilia: ‘Chairman Mao and Charlie Brown’, with its charmingly dated critique of Communism as a comic strip. It was the reference to Snoopy that grabbed interest. Being more into man-perfumes than Marxism, my nephew had also recently acquired his own first follower in the form of a black Labrador pup named Ross, thus reversing anthropomorphism and endowing the tyke with human characteristics. On theme now, I followed up with some of the other early ‘pooch poems’ where the life of the artist doubles as a metaphor for a young dog – in Kelen’s case, a mutt named Kafka – in which the vicissitudes of larrikin existence run parallel to the eager panting of a new poet first appearing in print. My WhatsApp-savvy nephew could relate to this canine portraiture as it touched on his own new master/slave relationship. (Don’t we keep pets to be adored without question?) He said that if this was poetry it was ok because it told jokes and was about ordinary stuff his generation could relate to.
I immediately felt old, in spite of the fact these vintage Kelen dog poems were my own publishing age. Yes, I have followed their first appearances in print over the years and am a fan. Many of them are old friends. The nephew didn’t ask to borrow the volume for later (not his or the poetry’s fault). This is the common problem of relevance that poetry faces when competing for attention with today’s multimedia smorgasbord, especially when the poetry hums and whizzes with pop culture references as Kelen’s does. Today’s multi-tasker has only a dog’s brief span of attention before moving on to fresh tree-trunks.
Meanwhile, in Kelen’s puppy-nosed universe, those loveable Hunds (with pure bounding energy) are not unlike young Kelen poems. Later, the spirit of the dog matures more into Wile E. Coyote, linking him to a broader earth of eco-relationships. Indeed, animals are one of the Kelen touchstones and perhaps more enduring than his first cartoon versions of animals: Snoopy, Bugs Bunny, Mr Jinx, Sylvester et al. Interestingly, from the first he has drawn from the lives of spiders and moved up the food chain to turtles, sea lions, cobras, cats, possums, rats, tigers, bears, not to mention bush birds. Cockatoos, galahs and kookaburras have also been there since the beginning as motifs of the raucous and instinctive, as well as representing Kelen’s developing ecological focus. They are representative of human behaviour as much as the animal world. Unlike often surreal or comic suburban satire, the animal poems less self-consciously evoke Big Notions: ‘Cats are ‘the tiger’s/ One great soul…’ (‘Tiger Lil’). Creatures arouse his curiosity. In fact, although a dedicated suburban dweller, Kelen goes under dingo skies in Australia on occasion – or overseas he finds wild jungles, prairies and deserts which link back to Australian encounters with domestic dogs, cats and those bush birds – those go-betweens on the cusp of great suburbia and the native tree line, that border we keep shifting, which still reminds us that we are part of a larger bio-system.
Satire and Comedy – Weapons of Mass Entertainment
Animal matters are not all that constitutes this Kelen Selected. It has this totemic thread of naturalist wisdom underpinning a social conscience that has never been afraid to go head to head with public issues. At various points Kelen has addressed ‘Boat People’ tragedy and refugeeism, issues of humanitarian responsibility, wars waged on Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, or the come-home-to-roost reality of US imperialism after a hijacked airliner took down World Trade Centers I and II. Such themes are part of the terrain of ‘Kelen Country’, and meeting up again with some of these works is like being invited over to the Kelen household for a few tubes with mates talking old times and hard battles. This Selected does give them more historical resonance than contemporary relevance, which is partly the purpose of such volumes. Interestingly, the Twin Towers / Pentagon poem, with its history lesson on consequences, is not included in this volume. Is this omission an admission that some poems are necessary hot buttons of public experience, but have life spans as limited as protest songs?
If Swiftian allegory is the saving grace of satire and gives it longevity and relevance over time, allusions to cultural behaviour and public moments animate Kelen’s poems about Homer Simpson-like figures. In his case, Homer the cartoon character functions as an objective correlative for our continuing discussion of real suburban life. Likewise, Kelen ironically lets loose past literary pop idols such as Byron’s Don Juan in the shopping mall. These kinds of poems dust off characters as romantic tropes from literature for contemporary purpose, or reverse the referencing by locating ‘Bugsa’ Bunny and Sylvester as they chart the gondola canals of Venice, that ‘ancient Disneyland’ of the art world:
And Bugs, Sylvester never heroes of
a World’s Cup victory, no pizza or basilica
ever dedicated to you, saints of my sanity
for years and years you were art
and life’s all about, more real then any fresco. (‘Venice’)
Poems like this evolve out of a literary equivalent of pop art pastiche, cut and pasted for ironic effect. In my opinion, they are not bad art and have certainly entertained us in the past, yet marshaled here in this Selected they are less fresh, and point to a style or technique now the staple of magazine design, not the art gallery. For me they have fading durability. To be fair, using pop culture subjects makes Kelen a chronicler-hero of his time. To highlight these cartoon characters as motifs for human culture is to over-emphasise the temporary in con-temporary. That act runs the risk of rendering the poems irrelevant as their cartoon characters’ relevance fades. Have we admitted Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny and the rest to the pantheon of enduring cultural heroes, or have they been consigned to the shelf marked ‘Cliché’?
Kelen is a poet with courage enough to take on contemporary culture and public concerns and claw back some of poetry’s old territory annexed by modern media. Unfortunately some of the poems produced from this impulse may also not pass time’s test. Kelen’s works of this kind are well written, accessible and don’t club the reader with their social concern. They deploy comedy and satire as weapons of mass entertainment. He crafts clean lines – faithful to the poem as a language artifact – while attempting to deliver ironies and write a resonating cultural history of our times and views world crises and radioactive issues from the kitchen window or TV screen through serious-funny life-affirmation alongside celebratory idylls that Vote 1 for quotidian life:
Idleness is the ultimate responsibility.
Seers who can’t bear to look at doom see
we must evolve more Polynesian ways––
more afternoon siestas, more sleeping in
and less destructive machinery... (‘Trust’)
Homer and the Epic Tradition of Suburbia
Like his hero, Homer Simpson – and tribe who have maintained longevity as TV’s epic representatives of suburban life – Kelen has been true to his style and interests from his very first chapbook The Gods Ash Their Cigarettes (1978). In that doggy-poet post-romantic suburban universe, Kelen himself posed the relevance question:
How long do you think it will take
before people will be reading poems
rather than newspapers? (‘The Spheres’)
With the benefit of Hund-sight, the more relevant question now is perhaps whether people will be reading much, or anything?
Poetry and its occasional lucky dip winner-poets have so far been cannily prescient, which is the reasoning behind Ezra Pound’s statement “Literature is news that STAYS news” (1934) and that ‘artists are the antennae of the race.” (1967). Do we still believe that? Am I waxing a little too grim? The optimism of Kelen’s work, in general, points to his overall belief in the longer lifespan of the poem as an artifact of history, despite his specificity with popular culture images.
Fortunately, the horrors of atomic bombs, radiation cancer, crooked or inept politics, wicked wars and such-like realities that he visits, are equally matched by the small joys and perceptions gained through day-to-day activities like parenting:
Pale & cranky sick kids
fall off their perches
the fever suppresses
the hormonal tide–
a good flu, they’ll say words
unheard for years.
Thanks Dad, thanks Mum,’
and they are pleasant
as sweet as lemon cordial
until they get better. (‘Sick Kids’)
A simple poem like this, not reliant on cultural references may endure longer than even bardic Homer’s American yawp, as the voice-actors depicting the Simpson Family one day pass.
Popular culture concerns and suburban locations are at the core of the Kelen oeuvre, yet raising kids, capturing wall spiders or traipsing around the neighbourhood budge in and gain prominence as the Selected progresses and the poet ages. This blend of the erudite with the mundane may be the best of what of Australia can ever be, out there in its urban sprawl. Like the lawn-planting exercise of ‘Earthly Delights’, ‘Kulchur’, as Pound called it, has to be planted in a place of brick veneer contemporaneity. This comic positioning in living rooms is reminiscent of that iconic Leunig cartoon with bug-eyed kids glued to the sunrise on TV, while the same sun is coming up unobserved in the window. To Kelen’s credit, he sees both and writes about them. The point is, where many poets screen out their un-poetic surroundings, Kelen has always owned up to his suburban realites, yet found ways to centre himself in it as a wry commentator, and even to write modern idylls from it:
They say Canberra’s a boring town
But opening the front door
The fuse lights on Mission Impossible.
Sheriff over the road lobs an empty
A mist spreads over a land where
Gardens bring tranquility ...
Kelen, then, deftly takes in immigration, job redundancy, child education, the dole, the carbon footprint of smoking chimneys during suburban winter and the need for road planning. Yet despite the social concern, the speaker of the poem hasn’t been overwhelmed by all and can still go out into the neighbourhood with an almost Zen acceptance, although not blithely unaware of the dark undercurrents, especially in the nation’s capital:
Walking the dog is the way, see Holy wattle and banksia glow. To be an oak or a cherry tree. Silver birch, golden ash. Yard dogs sulk, Cranky as the mighty sleep. (‘Back Home’)
The Poetry of Destinations
Let it not be said that Kelen doesn’t get out of the house and suburb. Although the neighbourhood and its backyards are clearly the main vernacular – ‘field of the poem’ – there are regular jet departures throughout this book to Asia and North America. In fact, there is more Asia than North America, and perhaps this is par for the course for his generation: being a part of Asia, not acting like some neo-imperialist brat of old-empire trying to lord over it. He is truthful to his era and to the desire for wider and wilder experience outside Western belief systems and canons. Thus, the ‘Grand Tour’ poet morphs into the economy-class Everyman, back-packing the self to faraway places. Self-discovery via ‘the Other’ has spawned post-colonial studies, which in turn rose from the ashes of a scholarly guilt complex after Edward Said’s political dialectic pointed out home truths about Orientalist Studies and Western colonialisation of the world map.
Earlier Australians followed the expat-off-to-London-to-be-an artist model, believing our great desert land was a dry womb. Since the Seventies, affluence and accessibility to cheap travel has shifted Australia’s centre of influence away from Britain. Thus, Kelen now wheels a nifty cosmopolitan suitcase through the anti-terrorist airport screening process onto Eastern philosophy and other vivid phenomenological experiences – down the Mid West State, Interstate and the Trans-Sumatran highways, pulling in at Burger King, observing the bicycle army on Hanoi streets, or drinking dirty chai at Madurai Station in Tamil Nadu. These are some of the destinations of his poems and revisiting them again through this Selected is like being at the kitchen table again and going through the photograph album with him. The US poems are mostly ‘road poems’ with stopovers and the connection with Native American animal totem culture ties up with traditional wisdom and planet ecology. When it comes to Asia, Kelen focuses on the urban south. India arouses tourist cynicism, as does a lot of what he sees in Indonesia and Thailand. Hanoi is clearly his ‘Paris of the East’ and has drawn him back more than one time it would seem. The earlier poems are refreshingly lacking in Western angst and cultural irony:
Love shimmers on the shore
when breezes shiver
lets the spine know its alive.
Oh celestial Ha, your name
means water of the rivers,
bamboo spirit, one gold star’s
music on a night like this,
peace from the sky then
a storm whips off the Eastern Sea
the rain dissolves balconies
and the flooded streets flow like rivers
I feel love and cannot help it, the country,
Hanoi, most romantic city and river (‘Red River’)
This is Kelen at his most unguarded. Other Vietnam poems like ‘Thousand Star Hotel, Hanoi’ also do uncharacteristic things, dramatising Vietnamese voices without imposed irony. Here a new kind of empathy is visible, where the poet is not just the clever commentator, but a voice of place truly identified with the speaker of the poem: Huan, ‘decorated veteran, part-time cyclo driver’ whose renown rests on being the neighbourhood barber. He has endured and survived:
some days the clouds re-enact the old stories
Almost yesterday the sky lit with dragon’s breath,
we fired at American phantoms and bombers.
We were always bamboo, now we are also steel.
This comes from one of the long narratives in the book. The poet has disappeared into the neighbourhood of the poem, dropped ‘his stuff’ – his literary correctness, and got down to the ego-less art of writing poetry. It is an acknowledgement, perhaps, of humility before the subject: in this case, the struggles of the Vietnamese people, which are bigger than one’s self-cultivated ‘style’ or ‘voice’. The later poem ‘Hanoi Girls’ reports from a more familiar commentator perspective, yet still expresses a high level good heartedness for the older, less urbanised city of his imagination.
Yet, I wish more from Kelen – more unselfconscious identification with idea, place and time, rather than the orchestration of theoretical positions and modes of style. They often filter life to the point that somehow loses the largeness of experience through the smaller funnel of personality. I may be wrong about this and, as I said at the outset of this essay, I am a Kelen fan because he hardly ever displeases the reader.
Like Felix the Cat, Kelen does pull arty stuff from his bag of tricks – never randomly – and avoids the blatant or pretentious. There is thinking behind his writing decisions. Anyone who can scribe credibly and sympathetically about national obsessions such as cricket and footy deserves a wider readership for the sheer attempt of putting poetry into the public domain. The question of relevance I raise merely as a point to pause and reflect upon the ‘far distant’, while Kelen’s otherwise very self-assured and entertaining performance to date has been consistent and with more high points than lows. There are few – perhaps no – clangers in this collection.
The more recent poems at the end of Island Earth continue his preoccupations while evoking sympathies more ecological, alongside poems rankled by mad things done in the world. There are poems with an elegiac mood, more family focus, a sense of his middle-agedness, not to mention the second-last poem in the book, something different for Kelen: an unabashed love poem with ‘The Blue Exercise’. The last poem, ‘Bird Diary’, with its sulphur-crested cockatoos, links back to one of the first Kelen works in Island Earth, ‘Very Early Morning’, completing some kind of cycle of returns.
Throughout his work, Kelen has wrestled with the devil in the details of things. That concrete connection with his world remains his strength and brings a reader back to poem after poem. However, the real challenge for each poet today is that the same world can be visited all too vividly and virtually via social media. How to make it new? For instance, as I mentioned at the outset of this essay, my nephew and his / our generation’s need for language and articulation is secondary to the nightly feast of blogs, movies and shows.
Does this mean the poet of negative capability has been reduced to a second-hand chronicler unseated by the virtual eye of technology? How can Kelen’s (or anyone’s) poetry compete? Can poets afford to retreat into art and speak big things to increasingly small audiences? What is the poet’s future and relevance in all this? Is it a cosmic joke? Impossible rhetorical questions these, and the subject of readings and essays to come.
This is a watershed book for S.K. Kelen. Let us hope that where he goes to from here during his ‘last quarter of the match’ will be even more interesting, provocative, entertaining and perhaps more personal and touching than his productive time spent so far on / in the field of the poem.