THE STANDARD FARE
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The Standard Fare: Ange Mlinko's "Epic"
– Feb. 5, 2015
– some heavy editing, Feb. 5, 2015
– originally posted to the PDC Dec. 9, 2013
A 'Best Of' post from the Best of the Poetry Daily Critique page.
This post was a follow up to another post prompted by the same poem, a post also found in the Best of the PDC: "Defending Poetry Magazine."
"Epic" by Ange Mlinko — Poetry Magazine
from Poetry (Dec. 2013)
poem found here
It’s you I’d like to see Greece again with
You I’d like to take to bed of cyclamen
god lies in the details
A comment added after writing: I am unsatisfied with that below, especially with the points about the poem, as I find often inadequately explained. But to fully explain them would require many, many more words, and this is long enough as it is. Hopefully, with the poem open, the points offered make sense. Or, at least, make enough sense.
A second comment added after re-reading: I feel a need to wholly establish the stance of this post: one that exists because of this post's relationship to the previous; also, one that does occasionally rise throughout this blog. While my subject of attention is here the poem "Epic," the criticisms that arise out of the exploration of the poem are ultimately directed not at the poem, nor at the poet as writer of the poem. Rather they are directed at Poetry Magazine, and other such magazines, who would give a poem such as this a standing that far exceeds what it merits, an act which, in turn, can serve only to diminish the sophistication of writing in the U.S. The target of critique is the discourse of poetry that exists today; one which praises mediocrity (and, often, as we have seen on this blog, sheer bad writing), and which seems to intentionally steer itself away from any discourse or comparison that might point out that reality.
• For bookkeeping's sake, I will mention that "Epic" did make its way onto the Poetry Daily site, on December 16 (here).
This poem – or at least this poem's title – appears in the previous post (here's a link). But that post, really, is about Poetry Magazine, and "Epic" served in the discussion only as an adequate stand-in for the whole of the poetic contents of Poetry Magazine, "Epic" being the first poem in the table of contents as presented on the Poetry website.
In the comments on that post, however, attention was turned from the discussion about the mag to the poem itself; and, I was asked what I thought about the poem specifically. Rather than post what would be by necessity but a brief statement of unsupported conclusions (or, by consequence of it being in the "Replies" a long and optically difficult read), I will start a new post on the subject.
And I do need the space here to speak to my conclusions, because my conclusions are not praising of the poem. In fact, the post previous was spurred by a discussion on Facebook that arose when I posted about Poetry Magazine announcing their new issue, and how on their site I was greeted, at the very beginning, with this aural clunker of a line
|It’s you I’d like to see Greece again with|
and the mess of the poem that lay below it, pondering (in so many words) what such a greeting said about Poetry Magazine, that they would lead off with such.
In the ensuing discussion there was voice or two in defense of the line and the poem that followed, with the question of "what is so bad about the poem?" My response was, in essence, "There are so many problems interwoven within this poem I don't think I could competently go through it."
Why do I say that again here?
Because what follows will not be – nor will be able to be – something formally organized and precisely argued. (At least, not without far more space and time than I wish to put to this post, or that this post even merits.) Indeed, many of the points below, if taken solely on their own, would not speak much as to the character of the poem. But as a whole, as an aggregate, they say an awful lot (pun intended). So while the presentation below may not be most efficiently organized point by point, it is, as a whole, intending to speak to that aggregate.
But also – and this goes to why I decided to write this post – because some of the responses to the poem spoke of the poem through the presumed or observed general effect of the poem. Such statements are not in themselves a bad thing. Indeed, how can you speak of a poem without also speaking of the poem in general. But that event seems to me to have been taken (and here I move from the specific replies to a broader discourse about literature) to an extreme, one that is wholly normal within a nomic culture of poetry, and one that can thus be used to push statements such as "there is so much bad about this poem" into nigh irrelevance. For it is the standard fare in the culture of poppoetry to permit general effect to supplant the details of a poem: many poppoetry conventions function to that end; and much poppoetry (and praise for what is poppoetry) exists wholly within and depends upon that rhetorical context.
My reply here is thus to give example of how "general effect" or tone or meaning on its own is an inadequate a response to a poem: not only because (1) one can talk about the general effect of a really bad poem without ever acknowledging how bad the poem is (in fact, while actively ignoring its condition); but also because (2) without attention to the details of the poem, that rhetoric of general effect is often used to speak of and elevate as "poetry" what is but the shallow effect of a shallow poem.
For those who think otherwise, let me contextualize: my qualification of meritable poetry – which is in this context publishable poetry – is that it will bear close reading. That which cannot want such, that which cannot stand up to such, is but pop (or simply bad) poetry. And my concern with this blog and these posts is rather about literature as an aesthetic endeavor, as the endeavor to craft out of words beautiful things. Poppoetry is antithetical to that endeavor: indeed, such an endeavor is by its nature damning of poppoetry; and, when it comes to it, poppoetry stands in at best an uncomfortable relationship with the aesthetic. But if that is your thing, go crazy with it.
That said, I have a couple notes before I begin: the "initial conditions" of this post.
First, I have intentionally not looked at any other poem by Mlinko. I say that so you know this poem is being treated wholly in isolation. Everything stated here is about this poem and this poem alone.
Also, it is of no small importance to the context here to remember that this poem has been published in Poetry Magazine. As such, it has been through two very important points of decision making: in reverse temporal order, (1) the editorship of the magazine felt the poem good enough to merit printing; and (2) the author felt the poem good enough to submit to Poetry. Note that the latter is not independent of the former, and may be wholly defined there by.
Finally, as stated above, I am here simply going to start looking at the poem and then keep going until I stop. I will maintain order as I can, but for the most part this is going to be a rather free flowing. Also, as I frequently do on this blog, I will work through questions and observations as much as through analytical statements. Speaking about poetry purely analytically is a self-defeating process: there is nothing I can "prove" about a poem that is not in some way dependent upon the reader's sophistication and individual reading of the poem. I can only present, and see if you agree.
So, let me start with generalities. There is rhyme here. Is there supposed to be meter? Taking a quick look, is it supposed to be quadrameter?
You can not settle on the idea of it being quadrameter without forcing (awkwardly) the reading of some lines. For example,
|after CENturies miGRAtion INland|
the natural reading can be very easily (and still naturally) pushed to
|after CENtuRIES miGRAtion INland.|
where the IES is but slightly stressed. But the question rises, if you are going to (naturally) stress syllables that (naturally) fall upon stressed beats, then you would you would read other lines as
|"and AM part THRAciAN or MAceDOniAN"|
|YOU i'd LIKE to TAKE to BED of CYclaMEN ?|
If it were to be quadrameter, I would have to read line 2 as
|you i'd LIKE to TAKE to BED of CYclamen|
Except it creates an extremely forced scansion: noone would ever naturally de-stress "You," especially in that it is the focus of the phrase: "it is YOU i'd like to take to Greece."
So, that's a long way around to a somewhat obvious conclusion; and I discard the idea of meter.
So then, what about the rhymes?
Yes, the lines rhyme. Though, the line endings have issues with clashes because of the stresses: for example "CYclamen" (it is not "CYclaMEN") and "deSCEND." Now, if the lines were more formally metered, this would be of more importance: that clash between a stressed and unstressed rhyme is much stronger, aurally, in formal meter. But as this is not formally metered, it is not as great a problem. Except, I will say, it still requires attention, though at a more subtle level. The "clashes" that can be (and always are) created are those heard most loudly by more developed ears. Those without such will mostly be oblivious to them. It takes a subtle ear to successfully rhyme stressed and unstressed syllables.
Are there problems with such in this poem? I would say yes. But, in that I believe they are brought about by issues other than a poetic ear, I will pass on them here and let them wait upon those other issues.
Notice how there is no punctuation; there is, instead, spaces within the lines. As well, lines are written to use the end of the line to the purpose of punctuation. That too I will let pass until later.
Let's move then to specifics, and right to line 5.
What am I supposed to do with "de tribus d'origine asiatique"? It reads as a mongrel mixture of languages. I ask, am I supposed to get something out of the intentional abutting of Latin and French? If so, what? If there is a game going on here I am blind to it (and giving the web a not-too-quick look I cannot find any justification from the phrases themselves). Putting it into English: "of three of asiatic origin"? "I descend of three of asiatic origin"? "I descend, of the three, of asiatic origin"? I am not at all sure where to go, semantically.
Leading off the line with the phrase "de tribus" makes it look like a title, as with De Rerum Natura, meaning, literally, "On the Nature of Things" or "About the Nature of Things." As such, "de tribus" rather naturally reads "on the three." That gets us "on the three things of asiatic origin," which doesn't really help us out that much. So let's keep the full phrase
|I descend of three [things] of asiatic origin.|
(We will skip the question of whether the mix of languages is in fact creating a grammatic/syntactic mess, except to say that the mere want to ask the question may signify a problem.)
Three what? Is it supposed to be that the speaker comes from three cultural regions, all of which are Asian? Greece is not Asia. Nor, obviously is France or Latin Rome. In fact, using the phrase "d'origine asiatique" in the French rather implies "French with asian origins." In turn, using the Latin "de tribus" rather inputes into "of three things" the idea "Latin," so now we have "of three Latin things, French of asian origin." Which is still getting us nowhere except deeper into the conclusion that the line is a poorly executed attempt at, to wit, sounding continental.
Besides, as said, neither France, nor Latin Rome, nor Thrace nor Macedonia, nor Greece for that matter, is in Asia. (Well, parts of Greece and Thrace, if you back up in time far enough. But that context is not supported by the poem.) So I have no idea as to the function of "asiatique" within the poem (both in the sense of "what idea am I supposed to generate out of it?" and "why is it at all in the poem in the first place?" Does Mlinko mean to say "oriental"?).
Also, how am I supposed to read "after centuries' migration inland"?[FN] This is a very forced phrase. First there is the geographical issue: "migration inland from Greece"? Would anyone ever naturally use that phrase in language? It is not like "Greece" is a ten mile deep strip of coast on east Africa and "inland" is then the whole of the Sahara. Nor that Greece is a small, shoreline port where people naturally land ships for ventures inland. "Inland" from Greece would presumably mean north into the area of Bulgaria. But if we are going to speak at the size of nations, can that be called "inland" what with the whole of the region being called the Balkan Peninsula? I guess you can move up to Romania; but would anyone ever call Romania "inland" from Greece? I think the relationship has rather fallen apart by that point. Besides, "migration" is an action: am I to read this sentence as saying that there were a people who somehow were actively migrating in a direction inland from Greece for centuries?
[FN] I do not think the apostraphe is defendable. As I hear it, the phrase "centuries migration inland" elides the "of" of "centuries of migration inland." I cannot come up with a way a possessive apostraphe works. To bring it into context, I have to ask, how did that apostrophe get by the editors of Poetry?
Look at the end of the second stanza. Why have that "I" dangling out there at the end of the line? Whatever reason you come up with to justify it, I will defeat it with a simple observation: it is cast so far off from "darkness" that it looks like a printing error (or something like a line marker). I would bet more readers than not naturally miss it completely in their reading, moving directly from "darkness" to the next line, then having to go back to figure out what happened: "Oh, I mised that 'I'." It is not like it is creating anything special in the poem. In fact, I would argue the I out there has far more to do with having the line rhyme with "July" than anything else. Unfortunately, the combination of end-lined "I" and the gap in the line creates a visual oddity that just looks bad.
The point is, whatever justification for the "I" you may have, the fact that it looks like an error always trumps it, because of this simple idea: Why would I want any part of my poem to look like a mistake?
Follow me through this. The attentive reader sees the "I" and asks
|"Why would you have something so visually awkward in the poem?"|
So the reader looks:
|"I cannot find anything created out of it; the only reason I see for it is the consequence of the rhyme and the use of spaces in the lines."|
So then the reader asks:
|"If there is nothing so important about the "I" at the and of the line, why write the line so that it creates something so visually clumsy? Why not write the lines differently?"|
To which the reader concludes:
|"Either the poet did not care enough or the poet was not sophisticated enough to recognize just how awkward the line is. Either way, the line reeks of lack of effort and attention. As such, how can I at all praise a poem written without effort and attention? Why am I even reading it?"|
The only time I could myelf justify such a thing is when the event offers a positive of such magnitude as to dwarf the visual issue. And even then I would still kill it because of that visual issue. Why would I want what looks like a typographical mistake in my poem?
Keep in mind, this is not some text found on a piece of paper in the street. This is a poem published in Poetry Magazine. There is a presumption of quality. A poem found on the street carries no expectation of praise. A poem published in a journal, especially on such as Poetry, implicitly does. And yet here the reader is confronted, within a forum that one would think would be seeking and publishing poems of a certain degree of quality, care, attention, sophistication, with evidence to the contrary: lines in a poem that are willingly (or blindly) awkward and poorly written.
Let's move back just a touch: what about that phrase, "pulled like roots from darkness"? First, there is a problem in the lines created by the chosen absence of grammatical marks. The lines read:
|The doors that opened to lovers pulled like tree roots from darkness|
Because of the lack of a comma, "pulled" is the verb with "the doors" the subject: "the doors pulled." The reader is looking for a verb in the line. Except the intent is for the phrase to refer instead to "lovers." The writing creates a clumsiness in the reading.
Look at the whole of it:
|The doors that opened to lovers pulled like tree roots from darkness I close upon us now like book covers|
Adding some punctuation:
|The doors, that opened to lovers pulled like tree roots from darkness, I close upon us now like book covers|
How is this clause bad? Let me count the ways:
Atrocious syntax. Honestly: would any masters student teaching a freshman comp class not mark that sentence as written? The "pulled" phrase is still forced: even with the necessary commas it still wants to refer to the "doors" because of the absence of a parallel "who":
|The doors, that opened to lovers who were pulled like tree roots from darkness, I close upon us now like book covers|
I could continue, but hopefully you get the point. The stanza is a mess. And that is my only point. The problems are not something that can be fixed with tweaking: do not look at the above list as points for spot edits. The whole of the stanza is a mess.
Let's instead move on.
Why is "a full moon" in small caps?[FN] Is there any reason for me to think it is not an error? Is there any positive benefit to this wholly isolated event? Every time I read the poem I want to correct it, since I can come up with no reason for the typography. (On the Poetry Magazine site it looks very much like a formatting error.)
[FN] To note, the small caps do not appear on the mobile version of the page. But then I have not infrequently come upon graphical issues with the mobile versions of poetryfoundation.org pages.
Let's branch out:
|Not we think like the epoch|
We skipped the best part, that first line. (And here we circle back around.)
|It's you I'd like to see Greece again with[.]|
How can that strained construction be justified? When, ever, in that freshmen composition, would that sentence escape this comment, before the class: "Sentences like this make you sound at worst semi-illiterate, at best like you do not care enough about your work to clean it up from what is universally recognized as poor English."
How can that line be justified, it being so aurally painful to hear? The work being poetry does not excuse the writer from basic English. And recognize that the problem is, in the end, not that the construction is not "the King's English." It is not an issue of "rules and their breaking" (another wholly misconceived and misused workshop aphorism). It is that it sounds terrible to an ear of any degree of sophistication. I ask again: why would I put in my poem a line that sounds so terrible, that has so obviously been forced into a bad construction?
The answer is, of course, I would not. The only valid reason I have been able to come up with for such a construction is if the whole of the poem was going to be written in that nature (whether for purposes of comedy or purposes of voice). But that does not apply here. So why then does the poem open with such a aural mess of a line?
I would posit because it rhymes with "myth." Very possibly the same reason the word "hullabaloo" shows up. Very possibly the same reason you have the "de tribus d'origine asiatique" mess. Very possibly the same reason why, in a dark alcove, the scene is described by its "brilliant tile." Same reason why you have that "I" cast out from being part of the poem. Same reason why the poem ends with a preposition.
Indeed, the poem very much reads like a person who is rhyming and is not yet good at it. The lines and wording of the poem read not infrequently as though they were forced by the writer in an effort to meet or make the rhymes. Now, I should say, I believe the brevity of the poem adds to the issue. It would be much easier to write the scene at the taverna – and I am sure it would make much more sense – if more than eight lines were spent on it. But that is the nature of poetry these days. Get in –heritage!– get out, get in –taverna!– get out, get in –something about roots and a book!– get out, get in –profound something or other about history!– get out. There's the framework here for an interesting and well developed poem. Unfortunatley, it was given twenty-four lines when it should have gotten closer to two hundred and forty.
So, what do I think about this poem? I think it is a poem whose ideation is totally out of control and so briefly and rapidly presented as to amount to little more than tissue paper depth. It is a poem that occasionally sounds ugly, and not infrequently contrived. I think it is a poem that hangs its hat on a number of poppoetry conventions (and wholly believe it was thus recognized through such by Poetry Magazine's editorship). I think it attempts at a rhyme scheme, but the attempt mostly backfires on the poem. I think it is a poem that suffers from one of primary maladies of poppoetry: it is happy at being short and shallow, with no real development, no real drive to create something of depth or vibrance. It has its little political/philosophical tag at the end, and considers itself profound because of it (but really, if you give it any thought, it is as shallow as a Rick Santorum talking point). And, of course, it is written in the manner of poppoetry: with little real attention to detail; and the hope that its readers will read it with little real attention. Because otherwise, well.
Now is this saying Mlinko is a really bad poet? or merely that this is a really bad poem that somehow got published? After writing the above I did look about, in curiosity, at other poems by Mlinko. But I am refusing comment: not because of the poems but because to say anything at all would open the door to speculation about subjects beyond the context of the above. In the end, whether I found something interesting or found something just as bad, or found something in the middle, my concern here – and my words here – are only about this one poem. And it must be remembered, to understand the context of this post it must be read knowing that this poem is definingly a poem published in Poetry Magazine.
With that, we can here return to the "initial conditions" established above, and ask: what does the fact that it was published say about Poetry Magazine? Note that that statement implies that this poem merited publication over the 10,000 odd poems that were rejected. Second, what does it say about the author that they considered this poem meritable enough to submit to Poetry Magazine? Recognize, though, that question turns right back around and again asks, What does it say about Poetry Magazine, and what this author thought about Poetry Magazine?
And in that turning back around, we get to the most important question: what does the publication of this poem in a premier literary journal like Poetry Magazine say about the state of poetry in the U.S.? What does it say that a poem would be published whose only possible successful reception requires that the reader not pay attention to the words, not hear how the poem sounds when read, and be utterly forgiving about issues with semantics or grammar? What does it say that, to "appreciate" this poem, the reader has to not think about it?
Because once they do, well.
A final note, one that might create a greater context to the above: a question that, perhaps, people will ask with this post, or with other posts in this blog.
What do I get out of the above? What do get out of tearing apart the negative (or positive) elements of this or other poems?
In the broad, it is to develop a discourse about poetry and poetics, and about literature as an aesthetic endeavor, not only with other people, but also – and more fundamentally – with myself. Through these posts I create a dialogue between myself and these poems, between myself and other works of literature, between myself and my own creative projects.
For in the narrow, it is only through tearing apart literature – both in the positive and the negative – that one can learn about writing literature. You have to dismantle a clock (either by tool or by pencil) to learn how a clock works. In writing the above I more than thrice began a point, and got well into that point, when I realized that my point was entirely wrong because I missed what Mlinko intended in the poem. Which is not a good thing, by the by: your poem should not prompt a reader to first go "oi, that's bad" and then have to work out why it was bad to then figure out that they were misreading the poem. Your poem should at worst prompt "what's happening here? I don't understand," which then creates the effort to understanding. There is, after all, a difference between a text that is difficult to read because it is complex or subtle, and a text that is difficult to read because it was poorly or imprecisely written.
It is in those searches for understanding, and in putting understanding and exploration into words, that is what makes this blog a benefit to me. (And you will always learn the most when you make the effort to put into words.) Superficially reading poems for the their general mood teaches nothing except how to write superficial poetry and the habit of reading superficially. Exploring, both the good and the bad, the successful and the failing, however: now there is a learning experience. (One can only learn to attend to details by attending to details. And I gave much thought to line endings as punctuation in writing the above.)
Of course, there are other reasons why I started this project. The one that provides the most energy is the one that is alluded to within the last post, that on Poetry Magazine: the want to develop a site (and, perhaps, in the future, other sites) for conversation and exploration about literature as an aesthetic object. Such a conversation requisites, though, its mirror image: such a conversation must also be about the differences between the aesthetic and pop, and must in defense of itself decry the culture of poppoetry.