4 Modes of Poetry (Part 5)

Modern Life by Matthea Harvey (Cover Image)

Modern Life by Matthea Harvey (Cover Image)

This is my last entry in the 4 Modes of Poetry series. I have discussed mainstream, the beats, and langpo, along with Tony Hoagland, Kevin Prufer, and Harryette Mullen. I’m left with elliptical/hybrid poetry and I’ll take a look at Matthea Harvey’s Modern Life.  Many moons ago, (okay, 11 years), Stephen Burt applied the label elliptical to Susan Wheeler’s collection, titled Smokes. He writes:

But most of its virtues and faults are those of a school: let’s call it Ellipticism. Elliptical poets try to manifest a person-who speaks the poem and reflects the poet-while using all the verbal gizmos developed over the last few decades to undermine the coherence of speaking selves. They are post-avant-gardist, or post-“postmodern”: they have read (most of them) Stein’s heirs, and the “language writers,” and have chosen to do otherwise. Elliptical poems shift drastically between low (or slangy) and high (or naively “poetic”) diction. Some are lists of phrases beginning “I am an X, I am a Y.” Ellipticism’s favorite established poets are Dickinson, Berryman, Ashbery, and/or Auden; Wheeler draws on all four. The poets tell almost-stories, or almost-obscured ones. They are sardonic, angered, defensively difficult, or desperate; they want to entertain as thoroughly as, but not to resemble, television.

(Side note: Burt recently published another essay, moving past Ellipticism and onto The New Thing. His style is the same: define a term and then never really deal with the new term in the scope of the essay. It irritates. But maybe I’ll try it and see how it all works out.)

The last few sentences best describe this type of poetry: almost-stories, almost-obscure, sardonic, angered, defensively difficult, and desperate. This doesn’t really encompass Harvey’s entire collection, so it’s important to also understand the idea of hybrid poetry. Don Share wrote about it on the Harriet Blog last October. The gist of the hybrid movement is perfect for the greater modern culture: take what you want from the various schools of thought and mix ’em up, then discard the rest. I’m going to discuss Modern Life with these two “theories” in mind.

My initial reaction to Harvey’s collection was to associate with Prufer’s National Anthem (discussed in Part 3 of this series). Prufer’s may be a bit more apocolyptic, but the tone and imagery seemed strikingly similar to me. The two section of “The Future of Terror” and “Terror of the Future” poems are most like Prufer, with such images as “The regime’s shaved heads felt like sateen / and their salutes shot through us like rum” (Terror of the Future / 2) and “You had to win the sweepstakes / to get a survival kit…All we ever did / together was play “Simon Says” and try to outrun / our shadows. It was a rotten routine and I’m not / going to romanticize it” (Terror of the Future / 4) and”We got most of our gear from / an abandoned general store” (The Future of Terror / 4). These portions of the book could be labeled as elliptical–they are almost stories, but not quite. They are cinematic (again, like Prufer) while not providing any answers, and there seems to be desperation without any clear direction. It turns out these poems are abecedarian (she explains in this essay (pdf)–read it by the way, not only for her humor but for a great explanation of abecedarian) in form, even if modified just a bit (hello, Hybrid). Exploring these poems with the form in mind makes the experience quite fascinating. These poems are the best in the book.

One interesting aspect of this collection is the integration of prose poems. I’m still stuck struggling with this idea of how prose poems are poems. In the case of Modern Life, I don’t see why they aren’t simply short fictions. I intentionally didn’t use the word narrative, as they aren’t complete narratives (even though the reader gets the story of each little section). Am I disappointed in the prose poems? Not necessarily, but why couldn’t she use lines? The language is beautiful, descriptions concrete, commentary cutting. I’m almost convinced the first poem in the collection, “Implications for Modern Life”, connects humans to pigs. The prose is obviously the influence of langpo, but I don’t see what it does for the poem. Does it emphasize the language itself? Not really. Does it strictly adhere to langpo rules? Not really (we’re talking hybrid and elliptics after all).

Either way you cut it, Harvey is a marvelous writer–I think she and Prufer paint the most cinematic pictures of any poet I’ve read. While meaning may be hidden, confused, or altogether missing, the path is at least paved with unforgettable scenery. Not intending to pun, but the previous sentence ties in perfectly with the last poem in the book, “Setting the Table”:

To cut through night you’ll need your sharpest scissors. Cut around the birch, the bump of the bird nest on its lowest limb. Then with your nail scissors, trim around the baby beaks waiting for worms to fall from the sky. Snip around the lip of the mailbox, and the pervert’s shoe peeking out from behind the Chevy. Before dawn, rip the silhouette from the sky and drag it inside. Frame the long black stripe and hang it in the dining room. Sleep. WHen you wake, redo the scene as day in doily. Now you have a lacy fence, a huge cherry blossom of a holly bush, a birch sugared with snow. Frame the white version and hang it opposite the black. Get your dinner and eat it between the two scenes. Your food will taste just right.

This poem seems to not only summarize hybrid poetry, but it may also lean towards Burt’s New Thing. The poem instructs cutting out and taking what’s beautiful, then find a comfortable place amongst the cutouts to live peacefully. Is this possible, in our modern lives? Is this possible in the current state of poetry? Harvey seems to think so–on the poetry side of things anyways.  I wonder what the night stands for in this poem–confusion, questioning, uncertainty, misconception, meaning, or…?

I don’t know if it relates, but a quote from Thornton Wilder’s Our Town comes to mind. The dead young woman has just returned from reliving her birthday, and is crushed by how humans don’t slow down and see things for what they are–they don’t look at people, they don’t enjoy the moment, they’re missing out (I should be saying we instead of they). She asks the stage manager if anyone can see life for what it is, and the manager replies, “Saints and poets maybe.”

But does too much theorizing affect our ability to see? To mean?


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