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When you read poems of some length—a double sonnet, or a book-length verse diary—you might well envision each poem as a self-contained entity: a “little world made cunningly,” in John Donne’s phrase, or a “machine made of words,” as William Carlos Williams wrote, propelled by the interactions among its own parts. When you read a very short poem—two lines, or twenty syllables—you might still ask about its moving parts, but you might also acknowledge that the parts do not move on their own: such a small object clearly depends, for much of its meaning, emotion, and force, on the expectations that we bring. Very short poems, in other words, can go a very long way to ask, and to answer, questions about what we expect out of poems in general, about what poetry—or a particular kind of poetry—is.
Two fine new books of short poems, Craig Dworkin’s Motes and Michael O’Brien’s Avenue, answer those questions in seemingly opposite ways. The language of Motes does not point consistently to a real, stable world outside its words, but fits into a modernist tradition by making itself flirtatiously or defiantly opaque. O’Brien remains loyal to another tradition, in which the integrity of the poem (and the integrity of its implied author) depends on its perceptual fidelity to a real, not entirely verbal, world. Both poets meet the expectations, fit the frames, that their short poems imply. And yet both poets exceed expectations too. Dworkin proceeds from words about words qua words to a kind of accuracy, after all, about things. And O’Brien asks us to proceed from things to people, from exterior to interior, from facts and scenes to sentiments and dreams.
Dworkin has a clear reputation as a defender and a maker of poems that end up anything but clear, as in his monograph Reading the Illegible (2003) and his book of rearranged found texts, Strand (2005): “This system is arbitrary and doubtful / point of departure for the element / which arguments questions / gravity: an atmosphere and not be answered.” Dworkin also co-edited Against Expression, a massive anthology of conceptual poetry. The poems of Motes—few more than two lines long—by contrast almost always make some sense, express some thing, but first you have to read a lot into them, rearrange their sounds and connect their dots. These poems show how few cues a well-primed mind might need before it begins to find patterns in words.
Motes starts with “A SHIVER” (Dworkin prints titles in capitals): that poem has just two more words, “winters itself.” The effect is a pun on “winter” and its French synonym hiver, and perhaps a play on chill winds’ sounds as well. Two pages later “BRANCHED TREES” reads, in its entirety, “very trendy in these streets of steady arbitrary breezing.” It’s a play of sounds and a game of letters, since “streets” contains “trees.” Line and title also evoke a leafy neighborhood where breezes (like patterns of gentrification) might zip back and forth through the parallel arches of trees (French arbres, as in “Arbor Day”). These poems on their pages, like trees on their streets, work together: a hermetic poem called “SPANISH PULPIT” foreshadows another poem on the same page, the anagrammatic “WILTED TULIPS”: “split little puppet pulpits tilted spilling dew.”
Marjorie Perloff, who championed Dworkin’s earlier work, now celebrates Motes as “conceptual lyric.” But it’s not clear that the term “lyric” in any familiar sense provides a good label for Motes: the poems are not like songs, and do not explore anybody’s interior life. They do belong, on the other hand, to ancient traditions of wit and inscription, of puzzle and epigram, and to modern traditions of minimalist poetry, as in Aram Saroyan, Robert Creeley, or Robert Grenier (who contributes a brief and jittery “AFTERWORD”). Those writers, like Dworkin, have published poems so small (Dworkin’s “VARIABLES”: “hob / peel // nept”) that we may ask how to count them as poems at all and whether to examine them one by one, all together as a book-length project, or in the even larger context of how we read, and what we learn how to read, in general.
The closer to nonsense a short piece of language is, the less self-sufficient it looks, the more we must ask what frame might help it make sense. Few texts have worked as hard as Dworkin’s, as economically, to remind us that what we make of them (if we make anything of them) depends on prior frames, on previous texts. Sometimes the most appropriate frame for Dworkin’s lines has less to do with other poetry than with childhood games, or knock-knock jokes: “Die Walküre, die.” “QUAIL DAMAGE”: “how sad for / those birds” (i.e., quel dommage).
Yet for all their games about frames, Dworkin’s tiny “motes” also say things about things, about what we can see, and touch, and hear. Take “METAPHOR”: “the light above // the mossy rocks.” If we take the metaphor for metaphor far enough, it seems to say that only by figuration can we make language mean anything at all (without light of some sort, we could not see the rocks). And yet it is also an elegantly symmetrical way to envision a set of slick (and perhaps phosphorescent, and perhaps metamorphic) rocks. “ROWDY LOUD LOCALS,” “rout of louts by dint of low clouds all around,” might seem like nothing but sound, a row of “ows,” but its commotion also envisions a mob dispersed—comically, suddenly—by lousy weather, a crowd on whom nature has the last, disparaging word. (Or not the last: the same sounds recur in “THUNDERCLOUDS,” “clearly loud under there,” which may also conceal a fart joke.)
• • •
Almost all the poems in Motes have titles (one more framing device); none of the poems in O’Brien’s Avenue have them (things ought to speak for themselves). Poems in Motes come two per page (as if to emphasize their interdependency); each poem in Avenue takes one (as if to say it could stand alone). Like their forebears in Williams and Charles Reznikoff (“a girder, still itself among the rubbish”), O’Brien’s poems can imply that form is function, that utility is beauty; they copy the things they describe:
With one twirling
gesture the deliveryman
wraps the heavy
chain around his
mounts, is gone.
Dworkin isolates his single lines, as if to emphasize what surrounds them (contexts, paratexts, frames). O’Brien, though his poems are not much longer than Dworkin’s, emphasizes enjambment, showing how each line—incomplete in itself—depends on the previous and the next as the poem goes on, until the completed utterance depends for its force on our sense that it can mimic objects in our world. The particular enjambments, and the varied line lengths (from eight syllables down to three), in “With one twirling” let the poem mimic not just a thing but also an action, slowing down as it swings round.
Nothing imaginative should have to rely only on the evidence in any literal, physical world.
Of course, the idea that a poem should mimic observation, that it should clarify an external world, is itself a frame, one that we can reject. O’Brien’s poems not only endorse that idea, but also provide arguments in its favor—they show how even the slightest acts of verbal mimesis can delight and instruct. O’Brien has been publishing verse since the 1960s; he writes these sort of Williams-esque poems as well as anyone since Williams (who helped to invent the modes in which Dworkin works, too). Yet O’Brien also seeks a quiet sublimity that Williams’s mimetic, photograph-like miniatures rarely found: a poem is for O’Brien “A dream of perfect understanding. / A flower carried home in a child’s notebook,” which is to say that it only looks like it will last. O’Brien also acknowledges that his poems are texts in a world full of texts, each one with an author:
On a hoarding on
19th St. someone has
written ANTHONY I NEED
YOUR LOVING NOW in
such a way that you believe it.
O’Brien lives in New York City, and reviewers notice its shapes in his lines. Yet the avenues of Manhattan lead in these pages into their opposites, rural or pastoral scenes or hazy, unpopulated dreams:
He brings back from
sleep, holds in his
stamp whose brightness
subtracts from the air.
The stamp whose brightness falls or fails (with a nod to Thomas Nashe) marks the poem itself as a letter from sleep, from the other, dark space where illusion prevails: its single sentence—at once a snapshot and an aubade—tells us what afflatus the poem tries to save.
Perhaps a third of Avenue concerns the boundaries between sleep and waking, the “habit of dawn” and the glare of day, the verifiably real and the merely imagined. O’Brien never doubts that words refer to things, never stops trying to make poems that feel like durable things; yet the closer you look at the new poems, the more personal, the more emotion-laden they seem, and the more they cry out that nothing imaginative should have to rely only on the evidence in any literal, physical world. This three-stanza, 34-syllable poem picks up more figures, and more sadness, as it goes on:
relative come to
visit who makes the
house seem small.
Beached dead tree,
stripped brain-fan of roots.
O’Brien begins in wonder (how big the world, how small my house) but then comes close to despair (how small the space and time allotted to me; how many roots my thoughts have, how many I never pursue). Such poems give, as O’Brien puts it, “No instructions. // Things to figure out.” Their things become figures, and stand for what people imagine, for what people try to do:
A long way from the Andes
the sound of a wooden flute
rides up the escalator
at Lexington Avenue.
Sudden as birds
two girls’ hands
break into conversation
across the car.
Poems are like flutes, like escalators, like birds, like American Sign Language (the girls may be deaf); the poet sets out not to depict one thing but to travel, and to communicate, across a populated world.
O’Brien’s poems at first resemble things, but then resolve into emotions and situations, set more between people than between walls. The last poem in Avenue might be the plainest: it’s also the longest if you’re counting lines (though not if you count syllables). It withholds all figurative language—all notable word choice, even—till near the end:
She does the
takes a long
time and while
she does she
talks to her
the street she’s
to her, um-
thread of the
Not much to see (just undifferentiated “laundry,” a nondescript “street”) and even less to overhear (just “talking,” no topic implied). The poem turns out to focus on, and to resemble (it’s almost a concrete poem) the “um- / bilical / thread of the / voice,” like a cord for the cordless phone, like the connections that memory establishes, that language can confirm, from mother to daughter, from reader to writer. The poem becomes that third thing, like the middle syllable in these three- syllable lines, whose “voice” keeps others from feeling alone, even if it unsettles us, keeps arguing with us, before it can do much else: it hesitates and continues, both anxious and glad, like the daughter who walks and talks down the distracted street.
Though we can distinguish verse from prose, and meter from free verse, there is no way to distinguish bad poems from non-poems on the basis of the words they hold: any old piece of found text can be treated as poetry, though the treatment may not be worth the effort and time. We can, however, define kinds of poems, their modes and genres, the particular goals that particular poets adopt and that particular good poems satisfy. (We can also—though we need not—trace their histories: both, here, point back to different parts of Williams.)
Dworkin works in modes designed to push our buttons and to test our boundaries: his kinds of poems succeed when they lead us to ask, overtly, “What is a poem? How do we know?” And yet these particular short poems reward attention because they also describe, pithily and bizarrely, our world. O’Brien continues to work in modes where accuracy comes first—each poem feels like a careful effort at clarity. His verse is mimetic before it is anything else. And yet his poems stick in the memory because they speak not just to optics but to phenomenology, not just to how things look but to how we can feel. Both books work because they exceed expectations, because they do more than their frames and their genres might show. Perhaps that excess, that surprise, is one thing we can say all good poems give.
Photograph: Brian Stocks/flickr