Friday, November 7, 2008

Online Poetry: Observe, Remember, Imagine

Writers should keep their senses open at all times, remember what those sense receive (even and especially when that information is not fully understood), and when in the process of writing they find they have forgotten something, they should make up resplendent lies, details more real than the real. A vague bluff will always be called. Ravi Shankar's Pike Place in Studio Vol. 2, Issue 1. Unfortunately, it does so not by demonstrating the results of such actions but by illustrating the sort of lackluster verse that appears in its absence.

Frankly, if Pike Place Market weren't such a major tourist attraction, I would assume that he had never been there and had, at best, read that horrible corporate motivation book the fish throwers released. The trouble begins in the first stanza with the lines "Puget Sound sounds astound / no one for the crowd is pressed." The poet needs to describe those sounds for them to be meaningful; if he wanted to dodge that responsibility, he should have called them ocean or sea sounds, since the use of a name instead implies something unique about it. The pun on Sound does not ameliorate this. Had he managed a truly remarkable description, I might have been willing to forgive him for not realizing that, no matter the behavior of the crowd, the Sound would have to be unusually loud for anyone in the market to hear it given the ambient noise of the city and the distance from the water.

From here, Shankar goes on to describe the "fishmongers" in cliché terms as "sinewy" and "young". Even their movements are non-individualized. They cut the fish "with an efficiency of motion". He says they give out "coral nubs of salmon / jerky", though even this vegetarian knows there's a huge difference between hard (let alone coral hard), dry jerky and soft fresh fish. He accuses them of "wisecracking the entire time" but gives the reader none of their words. He tells the reader that they are "minor stars in their own minds." The prepositional phrase implies that they are puffed up, though certainly the "rapt" crowd Shankar has described should support their own estimation. It further suggests that the speaker, not specifically differentiated from the poet, considers himself superior to, or at least more clear-sighted than, these men.

The next two stanzas read as exposition lifted from some book describing "Seattle’s oldest market" Shankar conscientiously lists specific "edibles / . . . treated like art objects" but fails to give any life to these descriptions.

Then the poem jumps into what I assume Shankar believes is the most important part: the description of what happened to Japanese-Americans who owned fish stalls when they were forced into internment during World War II. Unfortunately, this too remains vague. We get the title of the order that led to their incarceration but not the names of the people themselves. Had Shankar earlier given better details, remembered or imagined, of the present-day market, he might be able to connect them much more smoothly and powerfully to the stories of Japanese-Americans (even if he had to make up a family and research the names on baby-name websites) instead of using, for a transition, the line "I wonder how many remember", which oozes with smug superiority.

After that, he gives descriptions of shoppers and ferry boats which carry a fair bit of detail. I suspect, given their place in the structure, that they were supposed to resonate ironically with the words about the internment of Japanese-Americans. As there were no real details to hold onto in those words, however, these later lines fall flat.

Finally, he ends with what has to be the oddest line in the whole poem: "I haven’t seen a single Asian all day." Has this man ever been to Seattle? Had he just been hanging out in Packwood all day before driving in to visit Pike Place? The lie is almost big enough that if it had come at the end of a strong poem, it might have had a formidable effect—that of a metaphor or remembrance of history getting in the way of seeing reality. At the end of a vague weak poem, however, it feels like the last thrash of a drowning victim.

This shows how even a potentially powerful idea cannot thrive unless the poet pays attention and remembers or is willing to risk a dramatic, detailed lie. I did not write this to pick on Shankar. For all I know, this poem may represent a rare lapse on the part of a highly skilled poet. We all write bad poems. I've thrown away more poems in a single year than most of you reading this will compose in a lifetime. I wrote this criticism because I want people to see how damaging failure to observe and remember or imagine precisely and without fear can be.


Ravi Shankar said...

Dear Elizabeth—I’m glad to read criticism of poetry, particularly when it’s about one of my own poems, even when I might disagree with your basic premise. Because the corollary to a vague weak poem is of course is a weak vague reading. Have I been to Pike Place Market? Why yes, in fact I have. And one of the first things that struck me is how sanitized the entire area is compared to the dramatic wildness of its history. If you’ve read Annie Dillard’s The Living , then you have some sense, albeit fictionalized, of the brutality of the landscape and resourcefulness of the settlers in the Bellingham Bay region and the subsequent depletion of its natural resources. This process, the poem argues, has extended from the landscape to the population.

And yes, even in the bowels of the market, if one “observes” as you purport, a sense of that wildness is retained—you can hear the Sound, see wheeling gulls, gain a palpable sense of land’s end North America. Why need the description of those sounds when the very point is that they’re largely ignored by the imposition of the market and its consumers? Because more than anything else, the poem is about the continuity from the internment camps of WWII to the present day Starbucks-ization of the market. I spoke extensively to buskers in the Pike Place Market about how low-income housing had been moved away and how they were continually harassed by local police.

Indeed when I’m not bowled over by your sage and insightful advice (“Writers should keep their senses open at all times, remember what thoses sense receive”), I’m just plain perplexed. Look up Japanese-American names on a baby-name website to invent a genealogy? Really? That would make a stronger poem and not a completely inappropriate appropriation? Maybe if I was writing prose or a serial poem, but even then, I think not.

And do you know anything about the fishermen who work the market and who for the most part, at least in the stalls I frequented, are sinewy and young and do pass out free samples of salmon jerky (not fresh fish—this they sell), which as this vegetarian can attest to, is hard as coral? I can’t blame them their showmanship, because how would any of us act if we had thousands of people a day posing with us and taking our photos as we did our job? Their blustery, boisterous act is entertainment as firmly wedded to consumerism as the bucking bronco is to the rodeo. I’m friends with a number of Maine lobstermen, some of whom have worked in the Pacific Northwest and I’ve gotten a fair amount of scuttlebutt about the fishing industry in Seattle. That’s not to undermine the skills and charm of these fish-sellers, since I would likely blanch at even skinning a fish, but to underscore how hyper-capitalism has transformed the place from what it was when nearly half the area farmers were shipped away to internment camps.

That’s perhaps where your reading is weakest and most vague. I’d imagine—or hope—that it wouldn’t take a particularly sophisticated reader to see in the last lines of the poem, a metonymic description of the contested history of the site in question:

Outside, below the market, ferries
stream in and out of Elliot Bay,
trim, white, heavily-manned vessels

surrounded by swooping, swiveling
gulls that mooch whatever they can.
I haven’t seen a single Asian all day.

The boats and the gulls, both literal descriptions, also function sonically and figuratively, encompassing the way social injustice is not redressed but scabbed over, and how scavenging characterizes the consumption of folks who, for the most part, are oblivious to unwritten histories. Some of your readers might be interested in this Seattle Times article, though much more has been written about it:

And the crazy thing, that particular afternoon, with coffee in my gut and thoughts of Camp Harmony on my mind, was that though I was on the outlook for folks of Asian persuasion, I saw none in the market! Seems implausible, but there it is, though part of the point is the implausibility, the sense that most of the Japanese farmers never did return, leaving behind an absent trace washed away in the sterility of commerce.

This is an old poem and I agree with you that the imposition of the first-person, who should make himself more complicit in the action, makes for a smugness that I’d do better to revise out in spots, though it can’t be more excessive than the overweening superiority of the hyperbolic assertion, “I've thrown away more poems in a single year than most of you reading this will compose in a lifetime.” Oh really? And how many would that be? And if I was Jordan Davis working on the Million Poem Project, would that still be true? Wow, we can’ t help—if I can repurpose one of the words of the poem—but be “rapt” at how profligate and discerning our critic must be. And this bout of obsessive purging has no doubt been extremely successful since personally, I can’t recall a single memorable poem, let alone line, from her oeuvre. For someone who criticizes an impulse towards, “non-individualized movements,” this generalized assertion smacks of hypocrisy. Indeed I think you would have been better served to make your own lies a little more resplendent.

Best regards,

Ravi Shankar

Elizabeth said...
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Fringe said...

We aspire to have high-level discussion of poetry on our blog, criticism
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