The fourw 25 print anthology is released each year by the Booranga Writers Centre at Charles Sturt University in Australia. This year it features work by myself, Mark Young, Derek Motion, Ivy Alvarez and others. You can obtain a copy by writing to email@example.com. From the anthology:
Facades on Main Street have a lift
towards it, but the Manayunk sky
isn’t there, a mirage, a conglomeration
of spent wishes for a better human future
which can never be lived in the blackened
glare of well-trodden pavement. Its
expanse argues loudly for the subaltern
and its accessibility, a superior up
is down, a superior blue is black,
a superior open is packed tight
into a closed linearity, night’s deep
recess. Now, I take the trouble
to interrogate pavement, which
can only deny truths of not-surface, hotly.
Having committed myself very willingly to a position that ranks Keats’ lyrical gift (for melopoeia, prosody, etc) above all others in the history of the English language, I have now gotten around to configuring what I call a Prosody Meter to posit other rankings. It begins with the supposition that Keats’ gift supersedes all other competitors, and the 100% of the scale is the 100% of Keats’ prosodic achievements. On the level of 75-80%, I would place (at their respective prosodic pinnacles) Donne, Wordsworth, and Shakespeare, all of whom create and sustain exquisite poetic music, but lack Keats’ edge of fulsome solidity, of loading lines from every angle with ore. When Keats, for example, offers “mortality/ Weighs heavily on me like unwilling sleep,” the effect of assonant sounds repeated so that almost every word in the line is included has no echo in Donne, Wordsworth, and Shakespeare. At the level of 66.66% I place myself and Shelley. “Clustering,” as I call my prosodic method, has the advantage of clearing up narrative-thematic ground so that I am not chained to my own music at the expense of narrative or intellectual interests, but also loosens a chunk of what could be formally golden into a purgatorial realm where what sticks, sticks and what is lost cannot be retrieved. Shelley I deign (as Keats did) to be a competent but rather lazy craftsman, who falls (despite a substantial lyrical gift) into lazy phrases and inappropriate repetitions: no one who reads the Romantics seriously can quite forgive “I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!” and its like. The lowest, 50% rung of the Prosody Meter has on it a cluster of poets habitually formally lazy enough that “ore,” in the Keatsian sense for them, is always over or under-employed: Byron, Tennyson, Browning, Swinburne, Yeats, and Eliot. All of these poets can be “jingly,” facile the wrong way round, and prosodic bells ring perfunctorily.
Back to Keats: if I do pick nits with some of Keats’ sonnets, it is because, by the time he begins writing the major ones in 1816, his “chops” are so developed that, in his innocent delight with his own magnificent technical facility, he sometimes undercooks his voltas (the volta in a sonnet occurs around line 9, which is supposed to turn or torque the narrative of the opening octave.) Keats’ early voltas can be “auto-pilot” contrivances:
O Solitude! If I must with thee dwell,
Let it not be among the jumbled heap
Of murky buildings; climb with me the steep—
Nature’s observatory— whence the dell,
Its flowery slopes, its river’s crystal swell,
May seem a span; let me thy vigils keep
‘Mongst boughs pavilioned, where the deer’s swift leap
Startles the wild bee from the foxglove bell.
But though I’ll gladly trace these scenes with thee,
Yet the sweet converse of an innocent mind,
Whose words are images of thoughts refined,
Is my soul’s pleasure; and it sure must be
Almost the highest bliss of humankind,
When to thy haunts two kindred spirits flee.
The volta here undercuts, weakens the octave, by making the protagonist seem irresolute, and also unimaginative; in other words, it would have been more challenging for Keats to find in his solitude some objective correlative in nature to express what he wanted to express, rather than giving us the affective data nose on the face. It is, in American MFA parlance again, “telling” rather than “showing.” The irony of American MFA-land is that American poetry before me displays so little prosodic heft that American poetry gamers should worship the ground Keats walks on; but, in American MFA programs, the Romantics are little touched on. American poetry until now has been written uniformly by cretins. The gifted poets in the American canon are none. But back to Keats and his voltas: his more successful sonnets have structural dynamics that make the major turn interesting:
When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain,
Before high-piled books, in charactery,
Hold like rich garners the full-ripened grain;
When I behold, upon the night’s starred face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour!
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the fairy power
Of unreflecting love!- then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.
The double crescendo here— the revelation of Fanny Brawne, and Keats’ deeply felt passion for her, and then the plummet into the visionary locale of “the shore of the wide world” where Keats is confronted by his own powerlessness in the face of mortality (Keats’ Scorpionic courage in confronting extinction being one of his great poetic strengths), take us, with the requisite magisterial music (assonances like “of unreflecting love” backed/solidified by strong end-rhymes, and anaphora from “of” as well), to a place of complete, totalized textual fulfillment, where an extreme gift is made to serve genuine narrative-thematic gravitas. That is genius in major high art consonant poetry.
Apparition Poems: Ambient Ghettos of North Philly Pt. 2
One reason Apparition Poems got its title is that, between the spatial dimensions of different sectors of Philadelphia and its ornate architectural elegance, one gets the sense of ghosts, specters, and apparitions here, hanging in the air in a way that some find intoxicating, some do not. As I said about Temple University and the Eris Temple, those who find an interest in attraction/repulsion circuits (things, ocular vistas or otherwise, which attract and repel at the same time) will have much to ponder as they walk Philadelphia streets. Attraction/repulsion also leads, circuitously, to thoughts of salvation and damnation; and who the saved and who the damned are is another pertinent Neo-Romantic subtext. If Philly has an interesting relationship (also) to philosophy, it is because the relationship of our architectural constructs to the sky, the heavens, and to a widely disparate scene on the ground, lends a sense of transcendentalism to the city, and to attempts to forge higher worlds, aesthetic and otherwise, from it. This is all leading to this Apparition Poem:
There are gusty showers
in Philadelphia, showers
that beat up empty lots,
down in sooty Kensington,
you could almost believe
what the books say about
being-in-the-world, I mean
being in a damned world, it
really does seem that day
on greasy days in Philadelphia.
The circular nature of the poem around Philadelphia-as-topos gives it an air of being self-enclosed, self-completed, a whole, round circuit. The circle involves time, temporality, which has as one of its more graceful manifestations the temporal circle, where (in whatever context) you finish where you started. One of the grand subtexts of Philadelphia— architecture versus time/the temporal and space, is mirrored here, as the scaffolding of the poem creates a square around the circle of the poem’s temporal conceit. The “gusty showers” and “greasy days” of North Philadelphia depend, if we posit some aesthetic satisfaction in them, on a broadening of viewpoints towards a recognition that surfaces belie interiors, and what looks damned might actually be saved, and vice versa. This is Baudelairian territory— salvation and damnation are not up the alley of the English Romantics that much— and the Philadelphian Prowler may well be more, in his/her Noir orientation, simpatico with the Symbolists then with those consonant with the replenishing powers of trees, birds, and flowers. To be forced into a kind of Purgatory, against century XX, by architecture— such is the fate (through Philly Free School and otherwise) of Philadelphia in 2014.
The Posit Trilogy: Ambient Ghettos of North Philly
Connoisseurs of urban areas and urban life know: dilapidation, in urban contexts, has its own kind of glamour and ambiance. There is a richness and a decadent glamour to dilapidated neighborhoods simply from the sense of solid time, decades and even centuries, passing through them, hollowing things out towards a kind of perfection; especially if the architecture is interesting. North Philadelphia is mostly ghettos, mostly dilapidation: but the nicer bits of North Philly are so potent with ambiance that, for Philly Free School, North Philly would always be interesting. Part of the PFS vibe was a certain kind of laissez faire around where we would go in Philly, which was anywhere, at any time. We were not hemmed in by fear; Aughts Philly was not a fearful epoch. So that, when my friends Radio Eris set up shop at 52nd and Cedar in the mid-Aughts, smack in the middle of a North-West Philly ghetto, and called their shared, co-op abode The Eris Temple, it became natural for my routes to begin to include The Temple and its environs. The Eris Temple is where the two Apparition Poems videos were shot; and the site of endless readings, performances, and adventures. It’s not like the violent undercurrents of that particular ‘hood were invisible to us; but we moved within the charmed circle of a germane time which subsisted for flaneurs, art-heads, and misfits. I also have to say that the glamorous dilapidation of North Philly (and West Philadelphia, too) supersedes the closest NYC analogue, which is Brooklyn, most of which is hideously ugly, sans the elegant architecture which distinguishes almost all of Philly, for all time, from other cities. This poem from The Posit Trilogy, “Tranny Dream,” catches the sense I have that, as the Aughts wore into the Teens, impending doom in the form of a Sword of Damocles hung over all of our heads here, even as I did not manage to write/publish this until 2013:
I find myself in bed with a woman
with a man’s crotch, & find this
unacceptable, & so excuse myself
into an autumn evening in North
Philadelphia, looking for a train
station, finding more nudie bars.
I get trapped in an enclosed space
with a stripper, done with her work
for the night, who counsels me
against taking the train home, that
I can sleep with her backstage at
her bar. I push past, into the night
again, & am assailed on all sides.
The first person orientation of the poem aligns it with, not only the original Posit, but Opera Bufa; what is even more important, on a narrative-thematic level, is the association with autumn, and its harbinger of winter, which amounts to a confrontation with mortality. As in, the way North Philly subsists in 2014, even for all its ambiance (which includes also, a sense of the spectral or apparitional), has become unmanageable for those of us who remember the frisson of being there pre-Great Recession. I wrote the poem from a dream, and from the ‘burbs; pining, as does happen, for a precious era which is now past. I will always be haunted by what Philadelphia was both for me, and for all of my friends and lovers in the Aughts, and by the sense that we managed to capture, from Philly, another, higher world out of the ambiance and architecture here. The second poem I would like to share is more nose on the face about the sort of goings-on which transpired at The Eris Temple in the Aughts, is a sonnet, and bears the simple moniker “Eris Temple”:
That night I got raped by a brunette
chanteuse, I lay on the linoleum floor
of the front room sans blanket, & thought
I could hack it among the raw subalterns
of the Eris Temple, who could never
include me in their ranks, owing to my
posh education; outside, on Cedar Street,
October gave a last breath of heat before
the homeless had to hit rock bottom again, &
as Natalie lay next to me I calculated
my chances of surviving at the dive bar
directly across from the Temple for the
length of a Jack & Coke, North Philly
concrete mixed into it like so many notes—
There was once a raucous charm even to the violent undercurrents which create North Philly’s ambiance, and the “concrete” of man’s desire to kill, maim, and dismember man, was never far from my thoughts while I patronized the Temple. Speaking of Temples, Temple University, where I held the University Fellowship from 2006 to 2011, is a North Philadelphia establishment, and is every bit as garishly lurid as the Temple is. What you can see from Anderson Building, where the English Department is located, is quite frightening in its stark attraction-repulsion circuit. To be on campus all day was to be challenged, by a blasted landscape, to find charm in a fracas, and to embrace a kind of alienation built into what Temple had to offer on ocular levels. Why it should be that this dynamic, attraction-repulsion, is so important to an appreciation of the ambient ghettos of North Philly, is that it takes a certain kind of sensibility to be magnetized by sites that are simultaneously attractive and repulsive; and the Neo-Romantics, especially the painting branch of PFS, were all heads for this kind of contradictory approach to the city we lived in, and loved.
The Posit Trilogy, which begins with Posit and was completed in 2013 (revised in '17), has its own unique identity as (like Equations) a possible dialectic in poetry/literature. I am looking into the way that Deposit and Re-Posit complete the Trilogy, and attempting to discern whether or not the dialectical form of discourse (thesis/antithesis/synthesis) is properly fulfilled. The Posit Trilogy, in its fanciful sense of characterization and levels of imagination, reads to me like a more advanced, subtler version of Opera Bufa. For instance, the absurdist chiasmus between Saint Augustine and Dracula as propelling the Trilogy forward; and that the manner in which Dracula, who is allowed air-time in precisely two persona poems which end (respectively) Deposit and Re-Posit, girds himself around with rhetorical heft against both Augustine, purity, and confession, and then the purity and potential transparency of major high art consonant literature, demonstrates that The Posit Trilogy is playing games both with pop culture, with poetry-as-theater and texts as staged, with intellectual seriousness being balanced with playful vistas opening, and with a deconstructive interrogation of literary seriousness itself, on guard against overrating texts and textuality:
You can’t tell me
you don’t feed on
the mysterious disappearance
of the need to do this—
that raw life & blood
would suffice to
satisfy, & gird you
against the grinding
you fancy you make.
I’ve lived a thousand
years among human
souls, all in need of
blood, little else, and
words are no blood
at all— what suffices
for such as you is
(as you say) a
simulacrum of blood,
with limited flow-
potential, & as such
I counsel you (if
you ask) to feed on
something more wholesome-
don’t scoff— wholesome
is not relative
for the human species,
& your words are dirt,
feeding no one directly,
& those who feed are
suspect, chilled by
exposure to terminal
frosts, unable to bite
We may or may not choose to take Dracula’s critique seriously; The Posit Trilogy in steeped in investigations of subjectivity, and Dracula’s “I,” his sense of himself, is manifestly abased. There is also the sense that the ironies of us, a human audience, reckoning a vampire who hopes to convince us of the obsolescence of textuality, are potent ones: Dracula can stand in, however whimsical he seems, for mechanistic, brutish, repetitive, materialistic society, as a kind of door slamming shut, warning us not to take the textual action here too seriously, that menacing forces hover behind even what texts are germane to us. That, ultimately, Dracula (and those masses he is a synecdoche for) is an “anti-I,” and thus the greatest threat to the poetic “I” when properly employed, is another subtext beneath the whimsy. Equations goes out of its way to make its essential dialectic explicit, which bodes well for its surface-level popularity; The Posit Trilogy is more shadowy. When Dracula wins, in a context like this, it may be a sign of the times.
In examining prosodic structures in my body of work, it is noticeable that discrepancies present themselves in how prosody in general is approached. One interesting dichotomy subsists between the When You Bit...sonnets and the Cheltenham Elegies. Where melopoeia is concerned, the WYB sonnets are lavish leaning towards overripe: they cluster end-rhymes with internal rhymes, assonances, and the rest to heighten the carnival frisson of overwhelming romance, sexuality, intrigue, and transgression (the Something Solid sonnet series, from 2017 and out, takes the sonnet to a space more about memory, recollected in semi-tranquility, with more restrained music):
I ache: dull, sharp,
in a heap of paper.
All paper: picture,
bright, bold, dark.
I have nailed you
to a piece: black.
I darken touched
things: I’m used.
I write you, you,
you, as if kissed
by a fresh body,
I drowse: numb
as cocaine gums.
The nods to Shelley (“I pant, I tremble, I expire…”) and to Romanticism and the lyric “I” in general are right on the surface, and the whole game is the consummation of total aesthetic richness. It is a sense of wanting something, and getting it. The consolidation of end-rhymes with internal rhymes heightens this process. This is 2007 (the book was published in ’08, but much of it was written in the autumn of ’07). Four years later, and with the added encumbrance of a deepening national (and global) recession, I was ready to write the Cheltenham Elegies, and the note of lacrimae rerum was placed into them by impersonal circumstances becoming personalized. The melopoeiac dimension of the Cheltenham Elegies, next to the When You Bit sonnets, is hollowed out, emptied, reflecting a state of impoverishment; internal rhymes must suffice to color the poems, while end-rhymes are left out to preclude the rosy sense of ravishment in the earlier poems:
And out of this nexus, O sacred
scribe, came absolutely no one.
I don’t know what you expected
to find here. This warm, safe,
comforting suburb has a smother
button by which souls are unraveled.
Who would know better than you?
Even if you’re only in the back of
your mind asphyxiating. He looked
out the window— cars dashed by
on Limekiln Pike. What is it, he said,
are you dead or do you think you’re Shakespeare?
Different audiences over a long period of time will find mete to embrace different kinds of prosody. For myself, I would tend to value the hollowed out starkness of the Elegies, their implicit vow against the traditional ripeness of end-rhymes, against the twisted, torqued half-lyricism of the sonnets (if I call them half-lyrical, it is because they are welded to a narrative structure which is book-length and involves other characters, rather than the traditional lyric, which sticks to a first person perspective.)
The formality of the When You Bit... sonnets hinges on an original admixture of formal elements. Rather than usual pentameter line structures, here I tend to favor five beats per line, or what I call halved pentameter. What chopping standard pentameter lines in half will do to a sonnet would seem to be an open question; but certainly the formal nod is to brevity, concision, and the impulse to compress poetic data:
(a) Three sets of teeth: who
(b) can check for cavities?
(a) A three-way circuit: who
(b) will start the striptease?
(c) Three lovers in three ways:
(d) how merrily the dance
(e) begins. We spin, we spin,
(f) we forget our instincts,
(b) anima, the part of teeth
(h) that cuts. We are sluts.
(d) There is an “I” here that
(h) stands for all of us, but
(b) its eyes are shut. Sleep
(b) lulls it to rest, not think. Or speak.
Besides the feature of halved pentameter here, there is also a system of internal rhymes inset to enrich the end-rhyme scheme, which is (again) unconventional. Thus, (for instance), “three” and “teeth” in line 1 work with “cavities” in line 2; just as “three” twice in line 5 reinforce the end-rhymes of lines 2 and 4, “cavities,” “striptease.” Keats called this kind of melopoeiac reinforcement loading lines with ore; and he complained to Shelley in a famous missive how scant Shelley’s reinforcement techniques were. Surely, if the regular number of beats per line is halved, it stands to poetic reason that what is left must be as loaded with prosodic ore as possible, and I attempted to accomplish that here. It is also a feature of this particular sonnet (“Three Sets of Teeth,” which opens the initial third of the book called Sister Lovers) that the first quatrain (four line stanza) is written in the Shakespearean manner— Shakespearean sonnets tend to begin with a/b/a/b. Shakespearean rhyme-schemes in sonnets are dramatic to the point of being overripe; Shakespeare liking to imagine his sonnets being orated from onstage, perhaps. The sturm und drang facet of Shakespearean sonnets is not answered by the Petrarchan mold employed by Keats (and, of course, Petrarch), which is subtler, more intricate, more about interstitial craft then dynamic fervor and bloody passion. That, through the first quatrain, this sonnet emerges as “semi-Shakespearean” is something I would like to posit. In being semi-Shakespearean, I attempt to open the book in as dramatic a fashion as I possibly can; even as the last, “clustered” ten lines, in all their irregularity, move the sonnet into uncharted formal territory, towards a kind of wilderness zone which mirrors the narrative-thematic wilderness zone the protagonist of the book inhabits in his ménage with his two Chicago Muses in the first twenty sonnets of the book. This formal wilderness zone is reprised in the 2017 Something Solid sonnets, with a silver lining of solid philosophical engagement.
Since Fortune tends to favor the bold, I am going to make a bold assertion: until Neo-Romanticism, including post-avant, there is no serious prosody in American poetry. Frost and Dickinson write Hallmark-level jingles; Whitman’s use of anaphora is cheap and barbaric the wrong way round; and even semi-Americans Pound and Eliot do not build the kind of melopoeia into their poetic constructs to vie with the Romantics and those who preceded them. I call my wonted prosodic manner “clustering”— that is, I avoid regular end-rhyme structures and build in melopoeiac devices (rhymes, near-rhymes, off-rhymes, assonances, alliterations, anaphora, etc) in a clustered fashion, where the devices fall in the poem where they will, which grants me much greater narrative-thematic freedom as a quid pro quo for musical solidarity and traditional poetic scaffolding techniques. In terms of my books, When You Bit… from 2008 is the most musically rich, with an intense focus on melopoeia in the context of a traditional form, the sonnet:
(a) My spirit is too weak— mortality
(b) Weighs heavily on me like unwilling sleep,
(b) And each imagined pinnacle and steep
(a) Of godlike hardship tells me I must die
(a) Like a sick eagle looking at the sky.
(b) Yet ‘tis a gentle luxury to weep
(b) That I have not the cloudy winds to keep
(a) Fresh for the opening of the morning’s eye.
(c) Such dim-conceived glories of the brain
(d) Bring round the heart an undescribable feud;
(c) So do these wonders a most dizzy pain,
(d) That mingles Grecian grandeur with the rude
(c) Wasting of old time— with a billowy main—
(d) A sun— a shadow of a magnitude.
(a) Asinine, as is, this ass is:
(b) ass I zip down into zero:
(a) anal, a null, a void this is.
(c) I’m behind a behind that
(d) sits smoking, rubbing, pink-
(e) tipped, tender, butt, button.
(f) She watches me watching as
(e) I go brown-nose in another.
(g) Only her car-ness, averted by
(g) eyes to the wall, seems happy.
(h) Only she can stomach rubs
(h) of the kind that want plugs.
(h) Sparked tank, here comes
(h) no come, & aggravation.
Keats’ Elgin Marbles sonnet here conforms tightly to the Petrarchan mold— both in the end-rhyme scheme, and in the way the volta (turn after the first eight lines, a sonnet convention) plays against the first portion of the poem. My spider on LSD rhyme scheme demonstrates how cluster-forms of prosody can work— the end rhymes fall in and out, and the last four lines sharing an end-rhyme have a sense both of (potentially) absurdizing the poem, and giving it an adequate crescendo.
Anyone in America, especially along the Eastern seaboard, who lives past thirty-five will probably notice that, despite a tremendous press build-up to reinforce the “mega” quality of New York City, New York has no more material power in America than several other commensurate, or more than commensurate, cities: Atlanta, Baltimore, and, of course, Philadelphia. Indeed, the inversion between Philly and New York is almost perfect: i.e., Philly is precisely what New York is supposed to be, and vice versa. Philadelphians over thirty-five will usually have discovered the labyrinthine dimensions and depths of Philly, reaching out in myriad directions (including our sublime architecture here and what it signifies in the world), and touching Philly’s tremendous, forcibly underrated material and spiritual power in the United States. There are few American power-structures without Philly roots somewhere; yet, this structuring is largely “operative,” and not directly verbalized. So, older Philadelphians must live with what we can and cannot express on the surface, the way in which, in Philadelphia and out, we must be criminally misrepresented in the media, and also the false luster of NYC (and LA) lording over us their empty, bloated, comparatively ugly narratives and mythologies.
Dedicated New Yorkers, are, for the most part, a naïve race, a baby race, who understand little of what they see, and make every attempt to stay on the surface and embrace the false idol which is the city where they live. Yet, as they age, there will always be something missing for them, a sense that everything they see is a mirage, and that New York is the kind of city where fools rush in and almost no one else. New York art stinks of this syndrome. And, to the extent that I am winding this around to note something about the poem “Le Chat Noir” from the Posit chapbook (also included in '17's Posit Trilogy), it stands to reason that I should express where I feel New York School poetry needs to go: into the garbage forever, with all the other gamer crap from century XX. What I’ve discovered is that “Le Chat Noir” can be parsed as a heave-ho to the New York School, if we take the protagonist of the poem to be spry, pop-culture consonant, semi-hysterical, never profound Frank O’ Hara:
I pressed a frozen face
forward into an alley off
of Cedar St., herb blowing
bubbles (am I too high?) in
melting head I walked &
it was freezing & I walked
freezing into pitch (where’s
the) blackness around a
cat leapt out & I almost
collapsed a black cat I
was panting & I almost
collapsed I swear from
the cold but look a cat
a black cat le chat noir oh no
The poem is a sonnet, but the form doesn’t seem to be as important here as the thematic gist and the spin I want to put on that particular ball. If this is Frank O’ Hara, stuck in the bowels of North-West Philadelphia (the Eris Temple was located at 52nd and Cedar in the Aughts), and he imitates a Lana Turner-ish (for those who know his poems) collapse, it may be because the real decadent glamour on the East Coast is not where it is supposed to be, according to surface-level narratives, in the West Village or Soho, but in Philadelphia. I would like to argue that the realest glamour has always been in Philadelphia for the hip and worldly-wise, and O’Hara’s New York is a non-existent joke in comparison. People forget what Le Chat Noir was in Paris in the 1890s— a Bohemian haunt where artists used to hang out, in absinthe-laden, concupiscent decadence. So that, if the real Le Chat Noir vibe on the East Coast is here, in Philadelphia, then all the NYC stooge celebrations in the world cannot redeem O’Hara from knowing that his aesthetic number is up, and we’ve got it.
***this picture of me was taken by Abby Heller-Burnham in 2002***
The twentieth century didn’t bequeath us much, literature-wise. But I do like T. S. Eliot’s famous aphorism: “Immature artists borrow; mature artists steal.” The Cheltenham Elegy I would like to discuss does steal a crucial image from Keats’ “The Eve of St. Agnes.” If you put the Elegy next to the relevant stanza of Keats’ longer narrative poem (not an Ode, but sharing the Odes preoccupation with celebrating oddities and inverting poetic clichés), what emerges is a paradigm model of where the last two hundred years have landed us, as regards what constitutes innocence and experience, virginity and consummation, expectancy and satiety, and what historians chose to call Romance against what I choose to call Noir:
The Junior Prom deposited me (and fifteen
others) on the floor of her basement. I could
barely see daylight at the time, and at three in
the morning I began to prowl. I was too scared
to turn on any lights. She emerged like a mermaid
from seaweed. I needed comfort, she enjoyed my
need. We had gone out— she was bitter. The whole
dialogue happened in shadows. No one was hooking
up in the other room, other. You spiteful little princess.
Anon his heart revives: her vespers done,
Of all its wreathed pearls her hair she frees;
Unclasps her warmed jewels one by one;
Loosens her fragrant bodice; by degrees
Her rich attire creeps rustling to her knees:
Half-hidden, like a mermaid in seaweed,
Passive awhile she dreams awake, and sees,
In fancy, fair St. Agnes in her bed,
But dares not look behind, or all the charm is fled.
Oddly enough, Eliot’s mermaids in “Prufrock” occupy a median space between Keats’ innocent, angelic Madeline, and my “spiteful little princess.” Eliot aside, both “St. Agnes” and 420 involve festivities— and the celebration of St. Agnes Eve in the Middle Ages (where Keats got his narrative plot) was just as garish and ostentatious as a Cheltenham Junior Prom. Yet, the Elegy and the semi-Ode share a preoccupation shared, as a concern, by myself and Keats— what happens in darkness, in hidden or concealed spaces, far from the proverbial madding crowd, against what would be known on the surface levels of society and its terms of acceptance or acknowledgment. Porphyro is asking for an elopement, and is accepted; the first person protagonist of 420 asks for solace, on any level, and is rebuffed. That both poems emerge as fully sexualized, on a hetero level, is fore-grounded by this comparison— a mermaid is a kind of siren, and carries feminine glamour with her wherever she goes, and even in darkness (underwater, perhaps, in this context). 420 foregrounds this ambiguity— is the protagonist asking for sex (a renewal of what has been extinguished, in the poem), or just a loving verbal interchange, or both? He receives, from his mermaid, neither, while Porphyro eventually receives both. That is a critical crux between Romanticism and Noir, as a new mode of visionary Realism— many stereotypically Romantic poems end happily, with a sense that conflicts have ended in a kind of fulfillment, textual or narrative, intellectual, emotional, or physical. The bleakness of Noir significations guarantees that what is anodyne in Romanticism can never appear— and readers may find either Noir airless and claustrophobic or Romanticism weak and cloying. Now, Romanticism is a major, vital, complex movement, so that variability of signification still applies; but, reliably, that the English Romantics, even the “Satanic” second generation (Keats, Byron, Shelley) were positivists in comparison to Noir Apparition Poems like the Cheltenham Elegies would be difficult to deny.
Back to the two poems: the two versions of adolescence, one British and one American, one in third-person omniscient and one in first, are a study between adolescence retaining its wonted luster of freshness, joy, surprise, self-discovery, and unselfconscious risk, or adolescence degenerating into the space of already-thwarted dreams, premature (even atrophied) adulthood, and a sense of the crepuscular towards realizations of mortality even before adulthood is officially reached. This is part of what the Cheltenham Elegies are for— to acknowledge the ludicrousness of adolescents leading their lives like little adults, fornicating, wheeling and dealing, wielding material power in inappropriate ways, and attempting to cope with these realities in the total darkness (“basement”) of non-existent family structures and no real guidance. It is an interesting torque, and one I did not necessarily plan, between Madeline emerging from her clothes “in” seaweed (while Porphyro watches her from her closet), while my antagonist emerges “from” the seaweed of what? Another shady business transaction, round of gossip, or dossier check that all the right Cheltenham heads are playing their parts correctly? Keats’ version of “seaweed” is merely an optical illusion (i.e. that’s how she looks to Porphyro from his vantage point in her closet), while my “seaweed” is a metaphor for an entire way of life— kids bedraggled by onerous, gross practical realities which cling to them whether they like it or not. The “mansion foul” where Madeline lives as a ward is (we may guess) no less corrupt than an average house in mostly upper-middle class Cheltenham; yet Madeline has retained her innocence. My anti-heroine swims through seaweed-strewn waters, and is far from innocent. If she is spiteful, it is because others are spiteful to her, leading to the usual nihilistic Cheltenham chain reaction. So that, the steal I made, to transpose something from the Romantic canon into a Noir reality, inverts but also sheds light on where English language poetry is willing to go in the twenty-first century, which is into the total darkness of the American landscape, where the only joy is telling the truth about what shadows you happen to encounter.