Tuesday, June 23, 2009

`A Lot Into a Little'

It’s the last week of school, extended beyond the summer solstice by a teacher’s strike at the start of the year and a blizzard around the winter solstice. The kids are even less focused and more brazen than usual, and teachers try to placate their entropy with games, pizza and movies. I worked with seven fourth- and fifth-grade boys, all with the usual diagnoses. One kid needed help with a Powerpoint presentation about the taiga biome. I’ve never worked with Powerpoint, associate it with soporific staff meetings, and recalled some lines from George Witte’s “Trident”:

“…Extenuating circumstance
prevails against best practices and plans,
Excel and Powerpoint undone by chance

“encounters, infectious viral blisters.”

Witte’s second book, Deniability, has remained nightly reading, the poems better written and more informative than a newspaper. (Just last week I quoted Charles Péguy: “Homer is new and fresh this morning, and nothing, perhaps, is so old and tired as today's newspaper.”) And his poems don’t condescend. When I got home from school on Monday I found an e-mail from Witte:

“The reviews so far have been heartening, the reader reception difficult to gauge. No anger, but perhaps resistance to the density of language in certain poems, or to the subject matter of the book itself. At readings, the poems seem to be greeted with silence; at one reading, my wife raised her hand to ask, `What do you think people will find to like about these poems?’ She’s a tough, smart reader and her question is dead on. For many people, poetry is a place to find calm reflection, anecdotes of shared experience, accessible language, beauty, sadness leavened by humor or hope, all qualities that I too enjoy and that some poems in The Apparitioners offer. Deniability confounds most of those expectations and must be difficult to `get’ on first listen or first read; my hope is that it gathers weight and rewards engagement as the poems age.”

The poems in Deniability read like models of hard-won clarity, and it never occurred to me to find their language “inaccessible.” Clipped, yes. Elliptical, fragmented, broken off – but never willfully obscure. Witte, in fact, sheds light on linguistic murk. In “Trident,” one of his best poems, he writes: “Record the damage as collateral / against our leveraged power to enthrall.” I’ve seldom seen bureaucratese turned so effectively against itself.

After the e-mails I turned first, as usual, to Frank Wilson, and found he had posted a new poem, “Anticipation”:

“Lying awake late at night
He found the darkness
And the silence — the aloneness —
Comforting. Faces appeared,
Familiar, dear, and he could bear
To look. He noticed
He was listening, alert
In mind and heart and soul.
He was not afraid.”

The same poem, written in the first person, would have flopped – too cloying, too self-regarding. I like the calm sense of double consciousness – “He noticed / He was listening…” Witte, I suspect, would appreciate the appeal of Frank’s poem: “a place to find calm reflection, anecdotes of shared experience, accessible language, beauty, sadness leavened by humor or hope, all qualities that I too enjoy.” That one poem can remind us of post-9/11 anxiety and another evoke so private a reverie, and that both are good poems and give different sorts of pleasure, is another endorsement of poetry’s potential, so fitfully realized. Witte and Wilson, granted all their differences, write with precision, concision and the focus of a laser. Both write poems that imply the absence of a lot of rejected verbiage.

One of my students wanted help writing a persuasive essay against the abolition of school recess. I always have to beware of putting words in a kid’s mouth, whether out of impatience with their lack of articulation or as a shamefully petty boost to my ego. We used the “quiet room” – a padded cell without furniture where we sometimes put kids to cool off. We sat on the floor and he surprised me by working hard and sticking obsessively close to the writing plan (“topic sentence”) used by the district. At one point he had to distill the substance of a lengthy paragraph into a single sentence. Together we did it and, to prove how much matter we didn’t need, he crossed out with his pencil all the jettisoned words – all but a phrase or two.

“Wow,” he said, “we sure got a lot into a little.”

1 comment:

elberry said...

That kind of work - editing of some sort, helping another to use language - is incredibly rewarding; and it's good work in a moral sense, i believe, to use language well.