Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Mark Rudman’s The Book of Samuel

Some Clouds, with Tinges


Con of the formal bunch
with its gung ho comedy
of the newly logo’d self,
gang regulatory, anti-snafu’d, un-
deject’d. They (they they they)
“rock.” One boy in government-
issue duds is a tonsorial
disaster. Used to burning rain-
coats off wetbacks, he’s gummed
up collegial now, a convulsive
soldier of the comb’d out
post-singular communal gaseousness, yeah.
Issueless that crew, meaning Tinker
to Evers to Chance again
and again in a loop
begat by God and terminally
un-siring, concomitant to itself.
My druthers: stoickal boobdom, aimless
weinery, a frenzy of inimical
jamming, just one outlaw sleeping
upright in the saddle, my
my, unequip’d and quipping in
a ornery stupor of solitary
plumage, avoiding any asinine cut
of cloth, mocking that ‘prison-
uniform of the party to
which we adhere.’ No charity-
boy, no cherub-commodity, no
mob genius apt to service
itself for the froth’d mediocrity-
lather of the howling “band.”
Cum my majestickal indifference frank’d.

My sense of Mark Rudman is cloudy, tinged with skepticism, though how that assessment arrived, aucune idée. However, my wont is to examine things, and in Rudman’s new The Book of Samuel: Essays on Poetry and Imagination (Northwestern University Press, 2009), that examining points to a trove of aperçu-rich joineries, writ with seemingly nimble style, ranging swiftly, vibratory, unhesitant, askitter. Rudman’s style here is notational, interspersing personal recollect with audacious (exploratory) assertings nigh-aphoristic. (Rudman begins one number’d section of a piece with the James Wright-echoing title of “Reading T. S. Eliot on My Cousin’s Farm in the Gatineau” with: “You have to look at the Bhagavad Gita to find a book that expresses the conflict of being and nonbeing as well as Eliot does in Four Quartets”—a sentence that recalls with uncanny muster the type of supposedly “catchy” exaggeration Ron Silliman routinely indulges in—though here, in Rudman’s case, one suspects he’s at least poked around in the Hindu text.) Look, though, to some lines about Williams. After quoting Williams’s (rather tenuously balanced, just as liable to fly to pieces as to meet) lines “A new world / is only a new mind. / And the mind and the poem / are all apiece,” Rudman writes:
Williams’s way of breaking things down, of atomizing the particular, has an explosive quality . . . It is with an admission of “defective means” that he allows himself the imperfection that will let him make the mistakes out of which he will compose his epic: Paterson.
A dissonance
in the valence of Uranium
led to the discovery

(if you are interested)
leads to discovery

—to dissect away
the block and leave
a separate metal:

the flame, helium the
pregnant ash
If we think of his strategy as that of a scientist, then his words have an altered potency. He regards his discoveries in verse technique as part of an evolutionary process. He is nothing if not, to cadge the phrase Matthew Arnold used to define Homer, “rapid.” No wonder he’s captivated by the rapids! His method misleads some to see his words writ small. He diffuses his own process as he tries to keep a step ahead of a chain reaction.

The rhythm of the human gait is the beginning of prosody and, as Mandelstam asserted, “standing still is a variety of accumulated motion.” [Rudman makes big mention of Mandelstam, particularly “Conversations About Dante”—suggesting, even, that “American poetry might have taken a different turn had Mandelstam’s rousing and profound essay been available in English . . . in the years when Charles Olson’s “Projective Verse” . . . became the poetic credo for poets desperate to have their developing methods dignified by something authoritative to counter the consummate brilliance of the New Critics,” whom Rudman, in abrupt next-sentence turnaround, labels, too, “almost constrictive, closure-crazed, hostile to the new.”] And during this legendary walk in the third book of Paterson, Williams also reaches an impasse, which he incorporates into the open structure he’s devised.
                (Make a song out of that: concretely.)
If Williams could be blocked, perhaps I can be allowed to backtrack and not be guilty of overlooking the obvious, that Paterson also evolves out of the falls. He uses this massive but local energy source as a vehicle through which to probe the creative and the destructive aspects of power and its sources. If there is a villain in this tale, it is none other than Alexander Hamilton.
There’s a sense of Rudman swinging a little wildly here (and elsewhere: at what point does a parataxical copula’d—and, and, and—style become a mere heap of vagaries?): one anchors with some relief to the factual summary succeeding: “The first move toward harnessing the energy of the Passaic Great Falls was set into action by Alexander Hamilton in 1791, to create a Society for Establishing Useful Manufacturing. “Useful” would prove a profitable qualifier, since a mere forty years later Samuel Colt was able to open a factory where he could manufacture his patented Colt 45 revolver—featuring mother-of-pearl handles—and other “repeating weapons essential in securing the American frontier.” (Recalling, perhaps, Rudman’s lines of a few pages earlier, how “Williams’s outrageousness is so affecting, bringing attention to things that go unnoticed in daily life and certainly in poetry until he appeared on the scene. And he never tires of reiteration. “It is a principle of music / to repeat the theme. / Repeat and / and repeat again, / as the pace mounts.” There is no getting used to a world that is atomized in quite this way.”)

What’s odd about Rudman’s Williams—fulfilling my initial tinge of skepticism, mayhaps, as I careen around the essay, “William Carlos Williams in America” (others consider D. H. Lawrence, Hart Crane and Malcolm Lowry, Milosz, Nicanor Parra)—is how late Rudman must’ve come to Williams, how he seems to write for an audience of laggards and pre-modern Williams skeptics. He mentions Lowell’s seeing in Williams an example—“racy colloquial free verse with its seamless blending of high and low diction” contributing to the “breakthrough in Life Studies and beyond.” And [with my editorial incursions]:
It is worth repeating that several of the finest minds [echoing Howl] that have existed on American shores were all in step with Williams’s beat [or Vachel Lindsay’s The Congo? is it the odd diction—“existed on American shores”—or the register shift—“in step with”—that is staticky here?]. Some of the flaws they had the good sense to see as growing pains. But why is it that Marianne Moore and Wallace Stevens could see his wild originality, his genius, which knew what it wanted and went after it [“genius” reduced to carpe diem “Go for it!” exhortatory?]—“O brave new world that has such people in’t”—while today’s poets and critics whose exemplars are Moore and Stevens have no use at all for Williams? If Helen Vendler leaves Williams out of an anthology of twentieth-century American poetry (Oppen and Zukofsky too, but that follows as the night the day), I can only think of one response: blow it off [“racy,” “colloquial,” and “free”]. We can’t disallow people their blind spots and compulsion to adopt a position for or against, and there is no longer a consensus with regard to who the real poets are. Anything but.
Murf. I used to argue that setting type by hand uncover’d all kinds of faults of prose or poetickal construction. I suspect retyping a thing is capable of that too. (A way to explain or justify how directly my estimation of Rudman’s essaying plummets . . .) One sees a kind of post-partisan waffling here—Rudman, sensing the loss of some previously perceived “consensus” regard “real poets”—mrrauugh—rather stealthily repositioning (repeating, for the benight’d, the old arguments), all the while honoring one’s prior commitments (hence the over-compensatory chump talk of “blow it off”). This, too, is call’d “hybridity.”

Mark Rudman