Sunday, August 09, 2020

'Mutated Stumps of Meaning, Limbless Lines'

I’ve just learned of a poet, Alexandra Oliver, a Canadian who seems smart and funny and well-mannered – not the profile of a typical poet in the twenty-first century. I haven’t yet seen any of her books and I’m relying on the few poems of hers I’ve read online and on a 2019 interview. Asked why she writes metrical verse, Oliver replies:

“I think it appeals to me because when I was growing up, I had a very mannered upbringing. I had much older parents. My father was a refugee from Germany, then to Spain, then to England. My mother was Anglo-Welsh. We dressed for dinner probably until I was 18. It was like living in a Thomas Mann novel. There was sort of a Wes Anderson lunacy to everything. But there was a mannered lunacy.”

I haven’t read Mann in half a century, thanks to a profound absence of interest in almost everything German (except some composers), though I’ve retained a memory from Buddenbrooks: the death of James Möllendorpf, with "his passion for cakes and pastries," which I double-checked for accuracy: “[T]hey found his lifeless body, his mouth full of half-chewed cake, crumbs scattered over his coat and the grubby table. A fatal stroke had put an end to his slow deterioration.” That’s a family, alien to my own, that could hold my interest. Some raised in the family described by Oliver might turn into chronic bohemians and self-congratulating hellions. She seems to have gone in the other direction:

“I'm not the kind of person who rolls with it. I'm the kind of person who makes packing lists three months in advance. I like to feel like I can control things, and I think it's been key to my survival and my being able to navigate life.”

I’m not a control freak when it comes to other people, even my kids, but I like to have the last word when it comes to language, written and spoken. I find automatic writing, Dada ravings, spontaneous bop prosody, so-called Language poetry and plain old lousy prose ugly and repellent. I crave articulation and the careful, almost finicky use of words that sounds almost like conversation. What Oliver writes resembles light verse, and like its better practitioners, her intent is serious. Go here for a selection of Oliver’s poems, including “Why Girls Need Poetry,” which concludes:

“Berating, pleading, sprouting acronyms
Mutated stumps of meaning, limbless lines
Emoticons. Regardless of their homes,

“The parents who produced them, taught them sound
As conduit for feelings, plus the books
Flopped on their desks like dying birds on sand,
They feel the DNA of speech relax

“And fall apart, rebuild to monster form;
Their hundred eyes and mile-reaching stings
Not saving them from knowing that a storm
A gentle dust, has robbed them of their wings.” 

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