Thursday, August 13, 2015

The Last Book I Bought: Grave of Light Edition

It might sound odd to say, but I buy books much less frequently than I would prefer. A combination of limited money, even more limited space in my apartment, and great relationships with a bunch of fantastic publishers who just give me books, means that, even with my generous staff discount from Porter Square Books, I rarely buy books for myself. Which tells me there is often something distinctive or important about a book that compels me to actually spend money and shelf space to own it. Something distinctive and important enough that I think it's worth an informal series on my blog, one that provides another avenue or structure for talking about books that I think you should read, and one that riffs on The Rumpus's great also somewhat informal Last Book I Loved Series.

So the inaugural Last Book I Bought post is Grave of Light by Alice Notley.

I love poetry. I read it, I write it, I review it, I've even blogged about my love of poetry, but there are some major gaps in my awareness and understanding. Perhaps the most glaring one is in American poetry from about the end of the Beats until about Kevin Young, later James Tate, later Merwin, Mary Reufle, and more contemporary poets like Patricia Lockwood and Brian Turner. Basically it is a gap from what is usually taught in schools up until I began reviewing poetry about ten years ago. A lot of poetry happened in that time and a lot of changes happened in the landscape of American poetry in that time.

Alice Notley is in that gap. She was one of the names I would see in collections of poetry criticism or in interviews with poets, but for some reason, the timing of her new collections or my enthusiasm for other poets, or the standard-issue chaos of existence, I never got around to trying her until I saw Grave of Light in the bookstore. I flipped through and saw big blocks of text, long poems, unique arrangements of lines on the page, a blissful absence of pointless empty white paper (don't get me started on poets who assume white space inherently communicates and create these giant fucking books that don't fit on the shelves of any human bookstore), and, at least through the course of a casual flip-through, a refreshing diversity of style, form, and technique. Notlety is, obviously, a poet struggling to express the complicated currents of human experience and is not afraid to be complicated herself to do it. So I got the book out of the library first. (Remember all that about money and space.)

I like the debate about the relative impact of Whitman and Dickinson on American poetry. To me, even if I'm hashing out the distinctions by myself, distinguishing between the two and assigning value to those distinctions, reveals much about my poetics, my political values, and my general aesthetics of literature, as does following their influence through other poets I read and respect. For all her influence, I still contend that American poets have not caught up with Dickinson's innovations in poetic grammar. (If I were focusing on our ideas of grammar, I might take a moment to argue that Dickinson's use of the dash might be the greatest consistent use of punctuation in English, but this post is about Notley.) In fact, I'd go so far as to say very few poets, perhaps especially those short-line white-space enthusiasts that so get under my skin, have even attempted her way of arranging clauses, enjambing lines, and arresting and diverting grammatical momentum.

It's important to note that grammar isn't just about punctuation, but about how the parts of sentences are arranged in relation to the idea of “making sense.” At it's heart, grammar is an agreement that facilitates efficient verbal communication. Grammar is a system of logic, a way of arranging ideas so they make sense to the people who did not originate them. Though poetry has a very different relationship to the nature of sense and logic and communication than prose, it still has grammar, it still has agreements that allow for communication. Beyond her dashes, Dickinson had a way of arranging her ideas to stress the seams of poetic grammar, almost without us noticing it. Each phrase that seems to act as a qualifier or a descriptor also complicates and obscures. There are moments where her work feels so overt and open as to lurch towards a kind of obscenity, but that overtness collapses upon closer reading.

What I found when I started reading Grave of Light was a poet grappling with Dickinson's grammar. And that made the sale.

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