Jan 29, 2013

Hamlet's Words, Words, Words and "America" by Tony Hoagland

I assume no one would choose to have diarrhea. Is it therefore safe to assume that people (Americans only?) do not choose to suffer from logorrhea—compulsive, excessive talking? So it is some kind of affliction, like the flu, which has come upon us as a culture.

(What follows will make more sense if you take a minute to skim readers’ and my comments following the last post, January 26. Also, please believe me when I say I wrote this before stumbling onto Tony Hoagland’s poem, “America.”  I feel pretty lucky to have found a piece so connected to my own, though Hoagland and I both might be belaboring the obvious.) 

Why have we become such speechifiers?  If we are a gabbier bunch than we were in the decades up to about 1980 (to paint with a broad brush),  what is it we need to say and why do we need to say it, over and over, breaking the sound barrier, as it were, at the speed of light, as it were? Are we confusing that with better communication? More is more?

In the old days, farmers, industrial laborers and housewives were much more solitary creatures, by necessity. They did stuff that had to be done. There was a lot of physical work, and there weren’t many chances to run at the mouth. Even at church and school, the preachers and teachers did most of the talking.

By supper, those workers had more or less forgotten how to speak about things beyond necessities: “Pass the sugar” and “Shut up, boy.”  It was a four-hundred-year period of American grunting, except for ridicule-gathering politicians and snake oil salesmen. 

When you’ve grunted in the fields or the on assembly line all day, you don’t just convert to Shakespearean eloquence or Cartesian reasoning because a bell rings. And sensing your limitations with words, you’re afraid of sounding foolish if you speak—or your thoughts and feelings are more complex than you could ever make clear with your mouth.

In the last three or so decades most work has become sedentary. Much of it—like cold-calls or face-to-face sales or creation of documents that no one can understand—involves some skill with language, and skill begets use. You don’t just turn off the language dildo because it’s 5:00 p.m. You go home and make more talk. Home is where everybody talks or types at once. It’s like the mall, but not as good because there are fewer people and the lights aren’t as bright.

Talking isn’t really doing anything. You don’t grow tomatoes by talking about tomatoes—and talking to tomatoes at the volume and speed of today’s American speech would likely them.

Physical labor must be important stuff if you’re investing that kind of energy in it. You’re making stuff. Of course you’re also just paying the rent, but you’re creating beans or wheat or hubcaps or poems. What’s to talk about? Do the work.

When that making disappears, there’s a void. There’s nothing to show for a day’s work. You haven’t changed the look of the field; you haven’t welded a fender; you haven’t sewn the cloth; you haven’t swept the dust from the sidewalk. All you’ve done all day is make noise with your mouth.

Often as not, no one replies, at least not in the way you desire. You grow desperate and keep talking because you want someone to hear, because you have nothing to do but sit around thinking about what you want, what you don’t have, which is the feel of a person, animal, or thing responding to you—as a pasture does, in slow generosity.

For comfort, you turn to Starbucks. You get all cranked up, which makes you talk more and more and more, louder and faster.

You are too busy making noise to think about content. So things like athletic achievement become meaningless, even though it’s both an art form and a rehearsal for new wars that will arrive and arrive. Who has time for sports? Poor kids. Minorities. Not our kind of people.

But your kid needs recognition.  He isn’t very good, but he shows up for every game and practice, except for the days he doesn’t feel like it, or has piano lessons, or dance lessons, or introductory Mandarin lessons, or Taekwondo lessons, because God knows, the world has become global, the planet has become a globe that’s as global as the economy, a globe that’s now complicated in previously unimaginable ways, and you can’t have too many skills in such a place, which, by the way, is getting pretty close to Utopia, what with all our gadgets and different noises.

So you keep caffeinating yourself and taking lessons and making noises. Move and talk, move and talk, and soon enough, please God, someone will talk back, say the things you need to hear, fill the hollow in the middle of you, and life will be a fruity, low-fat cornucopia.

N.B.  I make no claim of practicing what I preach. 

America by Tony Hoagland : The Poetry Foundation


Jan 26, 2013

A Chair for Clint Eastwood. Curmudgeon Quiz.

Apropos of nothing . . .  except maybe our extreme, possibly terminal narcissism . . .  why do people insist on saying, "She's seven, going on eight"?  What the hell else would she be going on?  Is this evidence of some intrinsic human desire to shoot pointless noise out of our mouths? Is it projectile vocalizing? At the mall, do you hear just a bit of verbal superfluity, speed, and vapidity? Would we rather make noise than have money or sex? Are we so much about excess (obesity, war, spike heels, neon) that we'll say anything for the love of our own voices?

Has anybody out there got more examples of what I'm talking about?  Or am I the weirdo alone in the corner? Again. Over there by the empty chair.

Jan 22, 2013

Pouncey's Restaurant and Stephen Dobyns' "Tenderly"

Pouncey’s is a Mom & Pop in Perry, a fairly remote town in northwest Florida.  We chose it because the parking lot was full, and 80% of the vehicles were pickups. I tried fried ribs, which I’d never heard of. They were pretty tough, and ribs have enough flavor prepared the traditional ways. I’ll stick to chicken hereafter. The cabbage casserole and black-eyed peas were only OK, but the ambience was a solid A—all locals, it seemed, greeting each other and saying a fair amount of not much, as we all do when we’re locals.

I wondered about the 100% Caucasian clientele when 40% of Perry’s population is black and 2% Hispanic. Are southern Mom & Pops, like our churches, America’s most segregated places? Maybe it has nothing to do with the South.

From the next table, an elderly-but-not-ancient couple struck up a conversation. They’ve retired from Perry to 160 acres with three fish ponds in 35 miles north. He speaks with pride of his children’s outcomes (his son runs a business in Perry). 

The Mrs. is trim, with short, slightly wavy, senior citizen hair, and a classic church lady manner. Her smile seems genuine, but I’d swear there was a hint of ferocity below her surface. 

Only when they’re about to leave does it become clear that he’s on a walker. She takes it from the wall where it was leaning and pulls it over to their table. Then she positions herself behind him, grabs his pants and belt in the middle of his lower back, and with one hand, hoists him into the walker, as a mother might do with a misbehaving four-year-old. 


I’m not sure you'll see a tight connection between that little sketch and Stephen Dobyns’ poem, “Tenderly,” but here goes.

I’d also like to know how much you like and respect the poem. At first I gave it less than a grade of  A  because it seemed to be so completely a story in prose—broken arbitrarily into lines of wannabe poetry.

However, the thing has stuck with me for a few days now, and I’m beginning to reevaluate. Like many of the best poems of the “School of Accessibility,” there’s a powerful whole here that might overcome rather ordinary language.  I will not soon forget the central image of the man on the table, plus some of the details about the other diners and Dobyns’ implied theme(s).  What is it that does or does not draw us together? What are the best images of despair? Is it ever acceptable for us to know only the final result, the despair, without knowing the events that led up to it? Sometimes the answers are bizarre. Maybe.

I also wonder about the way we respond to explicit sexuality in poetry—it’s not all that common, after all. Is Dobyns playing unfairly by appealing to our baser interests—not just sexuality, but a weird take on it? Or are the rest of us too reluctant to accept sexuality as an important human experience and therefore very much the property of poetry? 

Lovers' Lane