Apologies for my lack of a post yesterday; I’m writing this afternoon from Long Beach Island, an 18 mi long, quarter mile wide toothpick of an island off the coast of Jersey. LBI is what it’s universally called. Tomorrow evening, in the LBI museum, our film, “A Big Ball of Foil in a Small NY Apartment,” is set to start off a very interesting Saturday night of programming. Earlier this afternoon (Friday) Sean Logan, who’s I’d say is front wheel right this moment on the re-furbed 10-speed that is Chicken Truck Productions, and I went to swap a better screening copy at the festival headquarters, a 4 story beach house filled with interns. We were greeted by a wave of friendliness that I am not used to receiving from strangers and told about a special treat that is happening tomorrow evening. In association with a film called “Pulling John,” a doc about a legendary World Champion arm-wrestler being called out of retirement to defend his crown, several of the greatest arm wrestlers in the world are in town and will be competing against one another in a bar rented out for the event.
The documentary itself looks like it could be quite good; professional arm-wrestlers, who must barnstorm, ala 19th century baseball players, and work day jobs to stay afloat, are an ideal subject for the documentary form. The dramatic situation at the center of “Pulling John” has been an appealing one since we were telling stories. We recall, long in the tooth by Part 3, how Beowulf was roused to fight the Dragon under the castle. Naturally he loses, because that is the way of life - to erode, sag, slow and stiffen to the point where what once came so easily is now beyond reach; the Dragon is metaphor as truth; it can be read as a figure for Time itself, which is always victorious when taking on the human body. I’m interested to see the fate of the title character. Were it a fictional work, unless I’m up a tree, his loss would be inevitable. No matter how crass this world’s greatest arm wrestler is, and he’s supposed to have the mentality of a 19th century stevedore, I imagine everyone will be rooting for him. In a narrative of Man vs Mortality, which is how this is shaping up (these young upstarts representing Mortality), we will root for most any man.
In any event, as soon as I got wind of this arm-wrestling demonstration, I began hoping I’d get a chance to sit across a table from one of these professionals. Even the weakest pro would slam my arm to the table the instant he felt compelled to do so, but it would be gratifying to feel that force. What is it that makes us curious about such things? I suppose it’s the thing that makes us curious at all. I also suppose that’s one of the benefits of a sport like arm wrestling; a professional can engage an amateur. Actually one amateur after another. So I will be hoping that I get to arm-wrestle a pro. If it occurs, It can’t possibly be as miserable as the hottest Buffalo wing in America, which I had the occasion of trying as about an 8th grader. That wing was hot as a coal; it arrived in a little gold paper French-fry dish. It felt like my entire esophagus was a blood pressure machine inflating around no arm, and my face was purple as an eggplant for a good half hour. Embarrassing as can be. It’s been worth it, though, not only for the story, but for the knowledge that I have done a cauldron-turn in the hell of spicy foods. It is hard to get through life without at least one gastronomical difficulty or another – choking or what have you – in a public setting.
The amount of topics I hoped to write about over the course of this blog was of course a much larger enterprise than I should have tried – especially on top of work, this film, getting my wallet and phone stolen, poems, girlfriend, family. It’s been like one who pulls his seat up to a buffet, and, determined to eat it all, just puts his fork in the first thing he sees, and begins shoveling in mouthfuls. Somehow, simply sitting down and typing, I have found myself writing about baseball cards and the immortal hair of legendary men and women of letters. How did that happen? The hair post was the result of having half a pot of coffee in the hours after I returned home from work; by the time it was 4 am, I discovered my foot was tapping quite of its own accord; awareness of my whole person, unifying as a look in the mirror, hit me like a bucket of cold water. I was still in the rudiments of my uniform, black polyester pants, and black hard soled shoes; every light in the apartment was on, all the cabinet doors were open, and I’d just written about a thousand words insinuating that farming his / her own hair is a sensible move for a successful late career poet.
To be in a beautiful setting is fortunate….How is that for a statement?….We are lucky enough to be staying at one of the nicest places I’ve ever been able to wake up in, walk around in, and call mine or home for at least a few days. It’s a touch weather-beaten, but in a wholly satisfying way; the house is big and clapboard and right on the ocean. I couldn’t believe it when we showed up. Whenever I get into a place like this, a certain ilk of vocalizations begin coming out of me that are always pointed out as being “Midwestern.” Opening up rooms and rolling dimmer switches and peering into clean enormous empty refrigerators I say “whoo-wee” and “oh my goodness” and “Will you look at that?” I sound like a wide-eyed fool, and as is the way with people, I do tend to play to it once I get caught in it. How we ended up with it was a piece of absolute grace. Sean’s uncle has some rental properties down here. As this is one week before the season properly opens, we were able to stay for free and bring the whole little production team down. Probably a good two hours of today have been spent watching waves, which is a rarefied way to spend time. Of things to watch – trees, people, birds, waves, ping-pong – perhaps watching waves is the best. It has been raining constantly, the mist like a thumb, smudging out, even midday, that line between sea and sky. But because I’ve been watching through a window, the 3-D has still been able to become 2-D, has split apart into planes, the ocean into a frilly cummerbund. That is what I love most when looking at the sea. To watch waves doesn’t exhaust the eyes, but revives them. Out on the patio I found an empty crab shell presumably dropped there by a sea gull. It’s a perfect ashtray; I’m in absolute heaven. I don’t know what to tell you.
THE PROSE POEM AS MEDIUM
Rereading a slim volume of Baudelaire’s prose poems recently, trans. by the always excellent Michael Hamburger, I came across a distinction that I’ve been turning around in my mind for the last few weeks. In the introduction, Hamburger begins a paragraph by stating: “I have called the prose poem a medium because it is not a form.” He then continues: “The special importance of the prose poem in nineteenth century French literature has to do with the limitations of French verse.” Hamburger’s ultimate point is that as a result of the prose poem, French poets [Baudelaire and later Rimbaud] were able to get access to a kind of flexibility that English poetry, with its evolution of blank verse, had been enjoying for centuries.
This begs a question: what is a medium, what is a form, and what is the essential difference? Is this difference worthwhile even peeking into? In defining the prose poem as a medium, Hamburger throws a dart. It takes confidence to write a sentence like that. McLuhan famously defines a medium as an “extension of man”; an extension of man is any innovation that allows mankind to overcome a limitation of his body or his mind. In other words, a strong limitation is the prerequisite. In McLuhan’s broad sense, not only are the telegraph and the printed word media; money is a medium; a gun is a medium; a wheel is a medium; even a psychotropic pill is a medium. All of these are “outerings” of a particular faculty that transcend that faculty; necessarily the respective evolutions refer back to the physical limitation out of which they sprang. The wheel is an extension of the foot, it allows the distance between, say, the post office and your home to be more traversed in a matter of minutes as opposed to a matter of hours. The walkie-talkie and telephone are both extensions of the voice, which has the drawback of not reaching more than a few hundred yards, let alone around the globe. The written word, with its ability to store information and release it to whoever knows the code, is an extension of the spoken word, which dissipates into a silence that leaves no trace. Money affords the ability to store work, store time; also the ability to translate the work one man does into the work that another man does; if I am chicken farmer, I can walk into a blacksmith shop and give him a coin that might equal ten of my chickens; the coin fits in the pocket, whereas the chickens would have to be carried in a sack.
This isn’t the best explication of it I’ve ever given, but I’ll keep onward; an extension, or amplification of a sense, to McLuhan, necessarily causes an amputation of that same sense. You can find the logic in American obesity; media like roads and automobiles create an environment in which the old medium – walking, riding a horse – is no longer sustainable. As we don’t walk from Home Depot to the post office to the veterinary clinic, etc., we essentially amputate our ability to use our feet as our primary way of transportation. You can also find the logic in the little black book, which is now the Blackberry, which is here an extension of our faculty to remember. The little black book, the little symbols our pens put down in it, remember the numbers for us. The Blackberry does the same, often without even asking you to even put the number in. Who then can remember phone numbers? No one as well as they once did, that’s for sure. If you ask someone to write down ten phone numbers from memory, it typically plays out as nostalgia. You still know by heart your best friend’s number from the 4th grade, but not someone you live with or with on a daily basis.
So how does all this translate to poetry? What sorts of extrapolations can be made from the understanding that a prose poem is a medium, and not a form? I happen to think that Hamburger is spot on. If the prose poem is a medium, not a form, what is amputated? He gives an efficient example when he goes about comparing the verse poems of Baudelaire to the prose poems. He states: “A comparison of the prose poem “Invitation to the Voyage” with the lyrical poem “Invitation au voyage” is instructive for that very reason: the title and the theme are the same, but nothing that the prose poem can says can match the effect of
Mon enfant, ma soeur,
Songe a la douceur…
What Mr. Hamburger is saying is that the music’s gone; as limiting as the norms in French verse were, the medium of the prose poem is going to cut one off from a style of language that is undeniably beautiful. It’s a bitch of a trade-off. As a useful example of this; type out a rhyming verse poem in prose; then format into the aquarium-like, justified-margined word-box that the prose-poem typically in on a page. I’d pick the hilliest poem you know, something w/ a strong regular rhythm like Hardy’s “Darkling Thrush.” Typing it out in prose, reading it, you feel how all the cowlicks lay differently. The accents are deadened and redistributed. Soon you see changes that you would make were you trying to make the best possible prose poem out of it. Most of these changes you will want to make will involve a.) cutting out the sonic flourishes, and b.) more clearly establishing the physical, visual situation of the poem. In other words, you will go in the direction that the prose poem pulls you, and it will pull you towards its strengths. Last time I checked, easily visualized “situational” prose poems tend to work quite well.
Of course this extension / amputation dialectic could be batted aside as corresponding with “with one hand giveth, the other taketh away,” or that sad fact that in purchasing a soda you can’t have both your dollar and your soda….I unfortunately don’t have any more time to go farther than this today. I put down a relatively large number of thoughts on the prose poem as a part of a review on a book by a fellow named Justin Courter, a very solid book of prose poems, better than the star rating I gave it, which is calibrated on 6 out of 10 to Robert Hass's Time and Materials. I’ll give that link here:
I will be picking up at some point soon, and I will talk about our film screening, I imagine, and I also would like to put some more down on the prose poem. Man do I wish I had another hour and half to sit in this chair….Hopefully it goes well. If I can just sell ten copies of the DVD, it will be a good; every bit helps. I am going to be asking you all, whoever you are, to go to our website and buy one fairly soon. I swear it’s actually pretty good; it will be shipped to you by me personally, if that is any allure.