Friday, February 25, 2011
A Sumptuous 61 pages of poetry
called “The Whalen Poem”
poetry by William Corbett
article by Michael T. Steffen
Biblical rains cut
Gullies in the driveway…
So begins the rhapsodic poem from Hanging Loose Press called “The Whalen Poem” by William Corbett, announcing a flood, timely in our subconscious still somewhere unresolved, displaced and afloat with Katrina, an image of waste and dissolution of things and people from their homes and organization in the world. The diluvial reference continues only for a few more lines:
Leak under chimney-flashing,
Drown cherry tomatoes.
Pipe breaks at joint…
—a sequence of images, common and downplayed, suggesting the devastation of seminal creation. Then the image of the flood itself trails off into other associations, becoming the disassembled method of the poem’s non-sequential procedure:
From the cellar drain spews
Last night’s scrapings ground
Fine in the sink’s disposal whine.
They won’t talk to me
They lived in a Love Dungeon
My brown suede shoes
Spoilt their wedding!
Nurses plot in lab
“You wouldn’t swear in court”
He claims his wife feels violated…
The lines now enact what Robert Bly identified in the sheaves of postmodern poetry as “leaping poetry,” a composition of juxtapositions rather than of sensible connections. The logic of the transitions from one passage to another, one line to another, remains tacit for the reader’s discernment, or invention.
So much of postmodern and Internet-era poetry derives from this early 20th century method (discovered in the late 19th century French Symbolists), that today’s reader hardly expects a poem to adhere to a continuous story or line of argument. So reading “The Whalen Poem” should not disturb us as the poems of Cummings or Pound or William Carlos Williams greatly caught the gasping Victorian sensibilities of their age by surprise and with amusement.
At the onset of his poem Corbett demonstrates his intention to keep the reader’s curiosity, in the tradition he is working from, by using culturally iconic—‘correlative’—themes and images and names: broken marriage, hospital, rape, litigation, trivial pursuit:
“What’s the greatest novel
Of the 20th century? You first.”
“Ahh, Remembrance of Things Past.”
“Ha! I said 20th century!”
In the first two pages we get glimpses of well-known recent and contemporary poets
James Merrill, Allen Grossman, and get more direct mention of such common domain names as Norman Mailer, FDR, Reagan and J. Edgar Hoover. We are likely hooked on the sumptuous array of prominent historical themes possible here.
The flood image that begins the poem is one controlling metaphor that justifies (or excuses) the bric-à-brac assembly of materials that make up “The Whalen Poem.” Another major reference used to suggest the work’s hidden or suggested continuity is its inspiration from the poetry of Philip Whalen (phonically reminiscent of Melville...). Whalen took part in the poetic movement of the 1950s and 60s associated with Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsberg, Michael McClure and novelist Jack Kerouac. The master poet practiced Zen and wrote in an annotational stream-of-consciousness freehand. This comes through in Corbett’s poem which after the carefully placed sequences of the first two pages more freely digresses into a sort of personal scrapbook of shorthand for memoirs, favorites lists of associate artists, musicians, athletes, and “THINGS HITHERTO UNINCLUDED”—interspersed with some more concentrated narrative scenes and unsparingly private moments, such as,
After 47 years Mary M______
Buick convertible top down, parking,
Her legs spread wide, finally,
Reach for the sky…
My father-in-law had a plan
But it didn’t include
His last words to me,
The son-in-law he was fond of…
…having me wrap his penis
And balls in a cashmere sweater
(Prevents bedsores) while he died of cancer.
Dante would have known the Bible as the Vulgate, Jerome’s version, the spoken language about the streets of Rome in Jerome’s time, and the poet of the Divine Comedy would make a monumental decision for Italy in writing his great poem in Italian instead of Latin. His native language deep in his mind and from his pen, experienced beyond learned, gave Dante a pliancy which enabled him the subtleties necessary for allegory, especially allegory of the damned where much indirect if not altogether euphemistic language was required. Where our innate modesty is involved, in particular, if Dante couldn’t avoid horrific imagery, which his topoi of Sheol and Revelations allowed him, like the soul of one man gnawing at the head of another man, he still managed to invent his terrible emblems of desecration in an indirect language. Corbett shows awareness of the these tools of speech in the opening of “The Whalen Poem” with the drowned “cherry tomatoes” and the pipe broken at the joint. That’s why I sensed the poem lapsed as I read on into it further. I felt the artist had dropped his brush and gone off into finger painting. The items in the lists failed to suggest anything beyond themselves other than items in lists.
There is much to catch the eye in “The Whalen Poem.” It is an edited work, where abridgments suggest the conscious act of inclusion and omission. It stirs with an air of the advents of a cultural or spiritual life and attempts to gather about itself a cosmogenic (Allen Grossman’s term) world, not unlike “The Ether Dome” or “The Waste Land”—great poems that evoke, paradoxically, a prototypical individual consciousness reminiscent of that slight gap between Adam’s reaching finger and the index of God on the Sistine Chapel. I believe this to be in the intentions of “The Whalen Poem.” And the intentions of a work of art weigh heavily in the estimation of its form and finish, if it’s true that form is achieved through the carrying-out of intentions. T.S. Eliot wrote notes to help the reader with the possible difficulties of abbreviation in “The Waste Land.” Readers of “The Whalen Poem” may want to be at a pc or laptop with Google under their fingers to elucidate the many names listed in it.
These things said, William Corbett has demonstrated no small patience or faith in having brought this poem to its book length. Like Lo Gallucio’s Sarasota VII (Cervena Barva Press),“The Whalen Poem” attests to the large and unrelenting spirit of poetry that demands our inmost humility and limits again and again. It marks this as an achievement which a poet with the talent of Corbett should not be satisfied to stop at, however much “The Whalen Poem” will entertain and intrigue its readers.