Saturday, August 19, 2017

`So They're All Tough Guys'

“Takes getting used to, three foxed S-O-B’s
Whose best lines run across the page like scars
Carved in the tree of us healing crookedly
Over the dead foliage of who we are.”

In real life, “foxed S-O-B’s” are not my type but I’m a sucker for them in print. Our author plays with “foxed.” In books it means the brownish-yellow stains left by time on the page. And beer turned sour is said to be foxed, and a drunk is foxed. Wyatt Prunty’s trio can’t be read without leaving a reasonably indelible mark. How many writers stick in memory, if not whole verbatim lines then phrases or vivid impressions? “Extravagant Love” showed up among the new poems in Wyatt Prunty’s Unarmed and Dangerous: New and Selected Poems (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000). His three were newly dead – J.V. Cunningham and Philip Larkin in 1985, Howard Nemerov in 1991. Each, especially Cunningham and Larkin, was intolerant of cant, the lubrication of our lives, and of the lazily sentimental. Each played the role of lie-detector and truth-teller. Prunty refers to Larkin’s “The Old Fools,” with its indictment of the old with their “air of baffled absence.”

In an interview Prunty gave William Baer, published in The Formalist in 2001, he says of the poets named in “Extravagant Love”: “Those writers used an acid bath to distill their subjects and get down to what’s essential and truthful. They wanted each of their poems to hold up in the way that Howard [Nemerov] describes in `Lion & Honeycomb’ when he says:

“Just for the sake of getting something right
Once in a while, something that could stand
On its own flat feet to keep out windy time . . .”

Nemerov’s poet aspires to leave behind “words that would / Enter the silence and be there as a light.” All three of Prunty’s poets did it more than once. He goes on in the interview:

“Cunningham did it with an economy of wit. Howard would shock you not only with wit, but also with harsh statements, humor, and all kinds of other things, to shake up sentiment and the reader’s expectations. As for Larkin, he often seems so scathing and contemptuous, but in fact, I think he’s actually quite compassionate about the people he’s discussing, but he’s absolutely determined not to be sentimental in any way. So they’re all tough guys, and they all applied a tough, intellectual rigor to their subjects that often seems a kind of harshness towards others. But I think it was a conscious aesthetic method they used to avoid sentimentality, not an indication of disdain for their subjects.”

J.V. Cunningham’s fifteen-poem sequence To What Strangers, What Welcome (1964) is subtitled A Sequence of Short Poems. It forms elliptical narrative which he elsewhere distills like this: “A traveler drives west; he falls in love; he comes home.” It’s probably the best verse he ever wrote, and begins like this:

“I drive Westward. Tumble and loco weed
Persist. And in the vacancies of need,
The leisure of desire, whirlwinds a face
As luminous as love, lost as this place.”

The operative phrase is “vacancies of need.” Cunningham fashions a westbound film noir travelogue, as in the sixth poem:

“It was in Vegas. Celibate and able
I left the silver dollars on the table
And tried the show. The black-out, baggy pants,
Of course, and then this answer to romance:
Her ass twitching as if it had the fits,
Her gold crotch grinding, her athletic tits,
One clock, the other counter clockwise twirling.
It was enough to stop a man from girling.”

The speaker, back home in the East, concludes the sequence with this:

“Identity, that spectator
Of what he calls himself, that net
And aggregate of energies
In transient combination—some
So marginal are they mine? Or is
There mine? I sit in the last warmth
Of a New England fall, and I?
A premise of identity
Where the lost hurries to be lost,
Both in its own best interests
And in the interests of life.”

The sequence chronicles, for adults, the journey of a middle-aged man. This is what Prunty means by “an economy of wit.”

No comments: