Poems from '6x6' vis-a-vis a poem by Joe Ceravolo
Why would it make sense to analyze select poems by a disparate group of younger poets working today via one particular poem by Joe Ceravolo? Wouldn’t it be better, if one wanted to make the case that Ceravolo is newly relevant, to take his entire oeuvre as a reference field? And even if his poetry might presage formally (through its informality) some things some poets today are doing, surely there are many other ways they are writing that have nothing or little to do with Ceravolo, or have much more to do with a wide range of poets from diverse periods.
The fact is that there is something in the poetry of both Barbara Guest and Joe Ceravolo that is distinct from other poets of their time or later and which is becoming increasingly recognized and influential among poets working today. Let’s call it musicality. It is a way of communicating that has little to do with logic, except as the logical mind extrapolates from given signposts. It is poetry that is nonlinear; stories are not told. Settings, if anything, are intimated, not specified. The poems do not rely on humor, irony, or surrealist surprise of detail.
And yet the poetry of neither of these poets is fragmentary. I believe that has to do with the time in which both Guest and Ceravolo grew up. In a pre-media, pre-multi-tasking, age, their poetics, aware though they were of tragedy, aspired to wholeness. I don’t mean their poems have pat endings, quite the contrary, but their poems have completeness. You can think of them as musical pieces. They begin with motifs, which are elaborated, and ultimately conclusions — musical conclusions — are reached.
It occurs to me I have been trying for some time to find a way out of the fragmentary. The more the fragmentary has been praised as the signal artistic achievement of the past century, the more I have realized I am uncomfortable with its ascendancy. Ceravolo and Guest are excellent guides to poetry that is thoroughly modern without being fragmented. In their poetry, there is no desire to turn back to an earlier conception of poetry’s limits.
A poem by Joe Ceravolo, then, provides the springboard for thinking about a group of young poets, who have been published in recent issues of 6x6. Let’s take a look at a poem by Joe Ceravolo, “Stars of the Trees and Ponds,” and then bring it back with us to 6x6.
Stars of the Trees
O blue and nerveless
stars. The night and the
distance of the lake.
The lake: mosquitoes, the
uni-inter air — the pond of
towering mosquitoes we float
the tents as we use
the lumpy earth under a
blanket. Cars: the
blanket of cars facing your
vision of stars and thoughts
never concealed to the lake.
Conceal: Thoughts are never
hidden, the mosquito cries to
the lake. And brings the
lake’s invisible man
Invisible: a woman rises into
the lake and out of the lake
Pond: you are left in the tent
and see the beige pond.
Leak: a woman stands over you.
Woman: the pond leaks.
You hear it.
(The Paris Review 38 [Summer 1966])
This poem by Joe Ceravolo accrues power through repetition. Not a description of a scene, nonetheless a setting emerges; the title hints at that setting, although the force of the possessive “of” is ambiguous, and the graphic separation of the word “Ponds” from the rest of the title seems to set it almost as counterbalance to the other terms.
We are in the realm of pastoral. The following words alert us: lake, mosquitoes, pond, earth, stars, tent. But this is no narrative of a camping trip, no occasion for a meditation on nature. Our first impression is that this is an occasion for the senses, and the trained ear may hear echoes of Mallarmé here, that is, of a poet who could write seemingly for sound only (or color, an Impressionist like his colleague Debussy), who created dreamlike passages of sound, in which desire is fomented and disappointment and attainment take turns as the tonic chord.
Ceravolo’s pacing is masterful: unexpected and precise. There are pick-ups: the third line ends with “lake.” The fourth begins, “The lake …” The sixth ends, “we float …” The seventh continues, “… through. Float.” “Blanket” rhymes with itself at the beginning of the tenth line (the last of the first stanza) and the beginning of the eleventh (first of the second stanza). And so on: “concealed to the lake. / Conceal:”; “invisible man / Invisible:”
The colons have a specific function, almost like a musical notation of repetition of an idea, a pause for reiteration. They initiate clarification of meaning but not by providing equivalents. Ceravolo’s insistent mode is a lyrical breaking of syntax. There is a progression as the poem moves through its stanzas. Although the lines are short, the poem moves by pauses, not flow, creating an expanded sense of time. This short poem can take a long time to read.
Cars are introduced at the end of the first stanza, grounding the poem in the mundane, as much as “the lumpy earth” grounds its physical experience. The cars threaten to “blanket” that experience, but, the poem tells us, thoughts, associated by proximity to the cars, are “never concealed,” “never / hidden.” Whose thoughts? At this point, the poet’s — perhaps only his. One interpretation could be that imagination is able to resist the onslaught of commercial culture. Reading this way, one would be tempted to identify imagination (or intellect) with the natural elements in the poem. Another interpretation could be that cars are transportation, and therefore imagination.
At the transition from the second to the third (and final) stanza, first a “man” and then “a woman” are introduced, albeit “invisible.” In the poem’s final three lines, the drama of the scene coalesces, as, “Leak: a woman stands over you.” This is the first use of the generalizing “you” in the poem. There is a human opening, literally and emotionally, here. The word “leak,” set apart by a colon from the phrase that follows, implies the woman, standing over “you,” is leaking. The tension created between a physical and emotional leak is powerful. But in the next line, the poet inverts the tension, clarifies it, or has the woman clarify it, speak it perhaps: “Woman: the pond leaks.”
Another idea makes itself felt: the identification of woman with nature. This ancient male conception has been discredited by feminists, but some women have sought to rescue an element of power in the identification. Perhaps Ceravolo’s poem partakes of this more tentative identification. Perhaps woman in this poem is nature, in all its hovering evanescence, while man is identified with the car and tent not as progress and domination but as intrusion, pollution.
In the final line of the poem, three short words quickly focus the reverie. Everything we have become aware of is part of the sensual experience of nature in a modern context, an ambiguous relationship between a man and a woman: “You hear it.” Humans are invisible, apart from, through somehow identified with, nature.
I would like to keep the experience of reading this poem by Ceravolo in mind as paradigmatic while examining some poems by much younger poets, published in 6x6.
Published by Ugly Duckling Presse in editions of 1,000, 6x6, as its name implies, presents in each issue six pages of poetry by six poets. (The Rolling Stones’ second album, 12x5, presented twelve tracks by five musicians). I have access to issues 15, 16, 17, 18, and 19, and it is these I will consider here. In these, all the contributors are contemporary, except for Mikhail Lermontov (1814–1841), whose poems appear in translations by Jerome Rothenberg and Milos Sovak. No information is provided in the magazine as to who edits it. No bios of the authors are given. The magazine has a distinctive format, seven by seven inches square with the upper right corner cut out, bound by a fat rubber band. The first line of poetry from the first poem in the magazine is printed on the cover along with the issue number but without the magazine title.
One of the pleasures of reading 6x6 is having one’s horizons broadened by the editorial policy of promoting experimental work. There are, in 6x6, poems composed of prose, and there are poems in stanzas. There are poems written in complete sentences, easy or difficult to comprehend, and there are poems whose syntax is interrupted. There are humorous poems and despairing poems, also angry poems, and sexy poems. I am combing the pages of 6x6, looking for poetry that works by subterfuge — in ways not readily apparent to logical analysis.
In 6x6 no. 18, Guy Bennett presents a suite of conceptual poems. Here is “Poem Wholly Lacking In Ideas” in its entirety: “Intriguing as the thought may be, / it is simply not possible / to write a poem wholly lacking / in ideas.” This is very well done, as are his other poems in the set. They are witty, and they keep to their intellectual premise of complete self-referentiality. More importantly, they are poems. They are very far, however, from what Ceravolo was trying to achieve. There is no urgent feeling that syntax needs to be fractured while retaining with difficulty a melodic result.
Lawrence Giffin’s poems in 6x6 no. 15 bears a superficial resemblance to Ceravolo’s in their use of exclamation, repetition, and spatial separation within normally laid-out lines. Here is his opening section:
was at my feet.
I too, knew,
it was immense!
I knew the word that
named the process
going on inside my head,
was restrained The Sea
and made in fact
herself to point.
My first conscious perception
of an abstract idea. Part I:
Helen’s Genius She touched
my head and said
with decided emphasis,
This is well-paced, and the word choices are very tasteful. There is a subtle mixture of ideas from classical poetry, philosophy, psychology, and politics, without the poem’s seeming overly referential. The ideas are subsumed into the poet’s own intervention in the English language. But there is still here a reverence for the completeness of the sentence. This is an important separating point, that determines whether a poet will be able to find his or her path of linguistic innovation, or will be under the sway of previous modes of connecting ideas. And lest anyone think I only favor poetry of The Tennis Court Oath lineage, let me add that innovation can take place too on the level of the syllable, or in punctuation, or in the space between words. Frank O’Hara does it in “The Day Lady Died” as much as he does in “Easter.”
Here is a poem that approaches what I am getting at. It is by Ossian Foley, from 6x6 no. 16. I can’t tell if it is a poem or a section of a poem. It appears on its own page without a title:
Souse with spray
— yet awash in rimless floods
the boundless touch
hand in hand without halt
the sail spans the bay —
time at bay.
What attracts me here is the use of the word “souse,” leading off with that, and yet — apart from the suggestive word “rimless” — relying on commonly used words, and resisting the temptation to pile words next to one another. The use of alliteration, assonance and rhyme here is sophisticated — “hand in hand without halt / the sail spans the bay” is particularly successful — but what really hooks, and seems particularly Ceravolean, is the way Foley uses the word “bay” differently in the last two lines. This gets inside the skin of poetry, to do something only a poet can do. “[T]ime at bay” is both “time spent at the bay” and “time kept at bay.” In the latter sense, the time — that is to say, the music — of the poem exemplifies what it suggests: it keeps rational clock-time at bay, at least for as long as we are reading.
Megan Kaminski, in 6x6 no. 17, presents untitled poems from a longer sequence, “Favored Daughter.” Dispensing with punctuation, she creates blocks of text, whose meanings hover and migrate, as in this section:
Fingers search into clay damp earth
make way for deeper roots horizontal
creepings below those top two leaves
there is still darkness even this time
of year beneath the sunshine and lawn
parties bequeathed longings croquet
around tulips sprout nasturtiums
lain dormant underground for years
As with all her poems in this selection, the first word only is capitalized, making them function like stanzas. They are breath-blasts — a tiny pause, or caesura, thrown in the middle — the amount the poet can speak in one burst, getting it all down in time. Getting it all done at once means that meanings wend their own way. You could consider this description, if you are really hung up on syntax, but it would not get you too far: hands probing under the earth run into roots, which they courteously make way for, prompting the narrator to remember croquet games and other happy summer activities. Even that, as description, is fairly odd, but what takes on much deep weight (“deeper roots”) is the way the sense of memory is leavened in, or rather how sensation (and here I get a twinkling of Ceravolo) unexpectedly prompts memory. As in Foley’s work, Kaminski does not tell the reader this; her words enact it.
It happens here: “there is still darkness even this time / of year” (italics mine). She (the fingers) has found the darkness — under the literal ground of earth and underground in the subconscious — which kicks up lawn parties and croquet and shockingly interspersed among them “bequeathed longings.” By the last line of the poem, we know for sure that it is not only the tulips and nasturtiums that now sprout, but these precise longings, which have “lain dormant underground for years” (italics mine). In this short, unassuming poem, there is a stark depth of emotion, all the more powerful for remaining unexplicit. We inevitably fill in the blanks. What remains is that strange word “bequeathed.” Archaic-sounding, almost out of place, it keys in the poem, making the connection from one person to another and making that connection somehow uncomfortable.
Paul Hoover in 6x6 no. 18 is something of an anomaly. I imagine most of the poets in 6x6 are in their thirties, maybe some in their twenties, some in their forties. Hoover is of an earlier generation, a revered figure both as a sophisticated experimenter with poetic forms and, with Maxine Chernoff, as a significant publisher of other poets. His work in 6x6 is not, therefore, surprising, but it does fit with the editorial stance. Here is the second stanza of Hoover’s “Night Is Spoken Here”:
clouds over miami
and clouds over time
it’s always the future somewhere
we all remember it well
a violent time has great ideas
peace is full of holes
One is aware reading this stanza of a poetics balanced by years of practice and freighted with an ability to handle the big questions. Yet the musical carries the burden, much as in Ossian Foley’s “the sail spans the bay — / time at bay.” Here, it is the repetition of “clouds” in the first two lines, the way the word alters its function by what it is connected with: first, the direct and nondescript; then, by pacing and substitution, Hoover shifts the game into the metaphysical.
Dan Rosenberg in 6x6 no. 19 presents prosy poetry in which syntactic connections are ambiguous, as in this opening stanza to “sight cracks open my shell tight flesh sloughs off”:
overripe I’m a white peach placed next to
the refrigerator humming unkind
odes to splitting open I have felt this
rippling in the colors inside me
have bled hot through the breached walls helplessly
The placement of words here is muscular, spreading energy through the text. “Humming” at first seems to describe the refrigerator, but later attaches to the “I” of the poem, as “splitting open” seems to go with the peach that is standing for that I. “Rippling in the colors” is still playing with the person/fruit metaphor, but the last line of this stanza takes an abrupt turn with the phrases “bled hot” and “breached walls helplessly.” Significant, in my opinion, is the rhyme of “breach” in the last line with “peach” in the first. The fruit is broken here, in the poem’s logic, although it is “walls” that are broken in the literal text. Another rhyme happens too, this one a semantic one, as “helplessly” recalls an unexplained “placed next to” from the first line. At whose mercy does this peach-person feel her- or himself to be? That is not explained, but the feeling, the “helplessly” of it, is very clear.
What have I found in my stays in 6x6’s pages? I realize that there is substantial diversity in the poets published by 6x6 in terms of style and attitude. What I am personally drawn to, what I began this discussion with, is what I find in Ceravolo’s “Stars of the Trees and Ponds.” I find reflections of that in 6x6 as well. It just occurred to me that “stars” in Ceravolo’s title can take on the meaning of movie or theater stars. The poem’s woman and man are the stars of the trees and ponds. I recognize that my reading in 6x6 has allowed me this perception. It is not a case of some poets published in 6x6 being influenced by Joe Ceravolo’s poetry. It does not even matter if they are aware of Ceravolo. There is something in the traffic — the taxis, and yes, of course, the subway — that travels in both directions. I become aware that paying close attention to what the poets in 6x6 are doing has helped me understand Joe Ceravolo better.
Previously published at poetryproject.org February 2, 2010.
1. Guest has become widely acknowledged as an innovator, especially since the publication in 2008 of her Collected Poems by Wesleyan University Press; Ceravolo is still largely terra incognita. Only The Green Lake Is Awake, a selected poems published in 1994 by Coffee House Press, is available. Ceravolo, who was born in 1934, died in 1988.