Weapon Of Verse Destruction #2
Jeff Clark’s Music And Suicide- The Witty ‘Genius’ Of Banality
Copyright Ó by Dan Schneider, 4/8/05

  One of the greatest sins of contemporary published poetry (note the second modifier of the noun) is a lack of fun, most notably a lack of humor. On further thought, I should state that the lack is of intended humor, because the unwitting self-parody of many poets is rife, as is that of their publishers, most especially in the blurbs the books they publish furnish. For example, I contribute annually to The Academy Of American Poets not so much because I believe in the organization, nor have any illusions that it’s doing anything remotely positive to take back the art form from the PC Elitist, Dead White Male professorate, nor the self-limiting and creatively challenged self-professed ‘outsiders’, who are really the open mic dregs in middle age, but simply because I believe in the old adage that it’s best to keep your friends close, but your enemies closer, to know what evil they’re up to.
  So, in the mail, I received my annual ‘free’ poetry book, the winner of the 2004 James Laughlin Award for best second book of published poetry. The book was, hold your orange juice, Music And Suicide- I kid you not. It’s as if there’s no even an attempt to hide the Twelve Stepping, and ‘art as panacea’ urge. That this book came from the once proud publisher Farrar, Strauss, And Giroux makes today’s poetic predicament- at least insofar as getting real good poetry published- seem hopeless. I literally guffawed when I saw the title. Of course, the book comes along with not only a laughable blurb, in the accompanying Academy letter, but a back cover photo of Mr. Clark in a semi-angered gaze, looking like some fey goombah that was just sodomized with a crustacean at a fish market. Perhaps it is just me, but I’ve never understood the purpose of author photos? Is the fey goombah, replete with receding hairline, supposed to be sexy, and up the actual number of people who’d lay out money for this ill-written crap from, say, twenty-seven to thirty-three?
  To me they do not serve a purpose since I care not what the writer looks like, but the words. As such, this is the ostensible purpose for blurbs, as well. The letter from the Academy comes with a blurb from one of the three judges for the award- career mediocrity Mary Jo Bang (yes, that’s not a nome de plume!): 

  ‘Each poem is a movie played on the screen of a highly imaginative mind- the mood moves between subtle humor and a lacerating melancholy, all against an obviously constructed reality. Music is the constant background; annihilation of the writerly self, the shadowing risk.’

  To those not familiar with blurbs, especially for poetry, this is strictly off-the-rack blurbery, saying absolutely nothing individuated for the book, nor the poet. I doubt the other two judges- fellow near-anonymous mediocrities Elizabeth Alexander and Susan Stewart- could have done much better. However, let’s dissect what Bang is actually saying:
  The whole movie metaphor is an old one, and a trite one. I can guarantee you that the ‘poems’ of Clark do not function as filmic pieces, the way, say, a Hart Crane’s imagery in a poem can, and they do not deal with film in the overt, referential way of a Frank O’Hara. I’ll debunk the ‘highly imaginative mind’ claim shortly. Let’s deal with the other. seemingly more specific descriptions. When someone describes humor as subtle, especially in literature, what they are really saying is ‘failed’ or ‘nonexistent’, not ‘subtle’. There is no humor in the book, as the title indicates, but this allows Bang to act smugly and claim that mere peons who do not belly laugh are simply ‘not getting it’. Were there truly humor in the poems, and not of the unwitting self parody sort, bang would be far more particular. Even more ridiculous is the term ‘lacerating melancholy’- simple code for self-pitying. This is the usual pseudo-Confessional tripe that has filled bad poetry books for the last forty years. ‘Lacerating’, however, is a not too used term, so its use with the overwrought claim of melancholy instead of self-pity, is meant to show that this poet (Bang probably even forgot for whom she was writing this generic blurb for) is ‘one of us’, but still ‘different’ enough to justify a book. On to the ‘obviously constructed reality’. Of course, this means that the poems are artificial, there are no moments where the reader suspends disbelief, and, on a more mundane level, its an admission that the poems are set in scenes, and deal with things, that have been written about over and over in the same ways Clark does. As for the last sentence- ‘Music is the constant background; annihilation of the writerly self, the shadowing risk.’- this is bang trying to be poetic in her prose, where she cannot be in her poetry. All this says is that art is somehow dangerous, and a thing ‘normals’ cannot do. It’s the attempt to still foster a divide between poetry and laymen. Of course, such a divide does exist between great writers and the not so great- which includes bad writers and laymen, but there is no need to claim it unless the work can live up to that. There is not a poem nor line that some sixteen year old can point to and say, ‘I could never have written that.’- and that’s the major flaw with published poetry. There is no poet now published, at least in America, or by a major press, that young poets can look up to. The Jeff Clarks or James Tates or Sapphires or Adrienne Riches of the world abound, and their diary entries and ill-worded screeds do not inspire the art, as all they care about is message- the I am good, I am worthy brigade, not recognizing that the art of art is how it’s conveyed, not what it conveys.
  That Clark falls into this brigade is evidenced by the interview with him on an accompanying blue sheet of paper. Here are a few gems. Asked for his poetic influences he answers: ‘Instinct (which has abandoned him), Mayakovsky (the pro-Soviet shill, suicide, and poetaster), Mina Loy (an excuse to be incoherent), and, in George W. Bush-like fashion, Jesus Christ. Either that last answer portrays that Clark is an opportunist, a really dumb person, or both. I would, however, love to get a hold of the fictive Messiah’s books on philosophy and/or his Collected Poems. Another gem is that it took Clark six or seven years to produce his slim 67 page opus. In dealing with a question on intimacy Clark claims, ‘That genuine intimacy (poetic or psychic) is a challenge; its failure can create an atmosphere in which only death seems possible or appropriate’. Long may Clark be lonely- or, to rephrase, Short may Clark be lonely! As for ‘poetic intimacy’- this is an oxymoron, since poetry is a communicative media, but what Clark really is saying is that poetry is a medium to reveal himself- yet another trite claim, and fairly a duh! sentiment. All art opens up the artist to the world. So? The last bit of wisdom he imparts in this ‘in depth’ interview is ‘That violence, when directed at itself, is necessary. That mourning is becoming.’ This is such pabulumistic psychobabble doublespeak that I am not going to even comment on it save to say tell me where to mail the sleeping pills.
  On to the actual crap in the book. There are 22 poems, overall, and supposedly written in chronological order, although this has no bearing on how they try to work on a reader. The first poem- A Chocolate And A Mantis- is a typical generic poem, spread languidly over three small pages. In the fashion of the day there is no punctuation, no reason for stanza breaks, and not a single compelling metaphor, although there is some music, however overdone with the alliteration and assonance. As mere sound, the poem is passable. In making any statement it is a waste.

The phosphorous cheeks of an ailing jester fallen that day
from an alien haze over jade lanes
to blades arrayed in ribboned mazes
created to flay a dilated spirit hole
He was a chaotic boy with phosphorous cheeks

  Go ahead, make the connection. Then ask- why do I want to make the connection? This is the essence of much published poetry these days. Clark says nothing. Yes, it has some nice sounds in terms of alliteration, but the music lacks because there is no narrative drive to yoke it together. This is one of those poems whose narrative would be described as ‘surreal’- a euphemism for hodgepodge. Why is there a connection between the jester and the boy? And why a capital H to start the fifth line, if punctuation is missing? Other sentence starts have no capitalization, and some capitalized letters have no place. Yet, Clark is trying to pepper in meaning and import where the words do not compel such. This is where the poetry becomes more of a puzzle than poetry, if it can even loosely and truly be considered such at all. I’ve seen this poem, or its near equivalents, ten thousand times in poetry groups and workshops. There is no reason this should be held up as a thing worth publishing because I’ve dotted off far superior poems in under three minutes of streaming my consciousness, and many sixteen year olds legitimately have better poems scribbled into marginalia, as well.
  Yet, I saw a City Pages review of the book called this poem ‘seductive decadence’. That phrase even outdoes Bang’s nonsense in that it’s a total non-sequitur that sounds nice, and perhaps specific, but what does that mean in terms of describing poetry. It would be one thing id Clark’s poems were merely poorly constructed and ill-worded exercises in bathos, but he also manages to utterly re-kill dead metaphors and necrophilically violate clichés. Here’s a section from Missing Is A Stimulant:

chances to fathom her absence
or collapse with the sap of plants
and sleep, and demand of a jasmine-scented face
How are you still so fragrant?
An object at a morgue or an organ

  If you cannot recognize the five violations- one in each line- then you need to read much more poetry. This is abysmal writing, and the sentiment is even more banal. I defy anyone to tell me that there is an original thought or phrasing in these lines which end this poem. You cannot.
  The centerpiece of the book is a fourteen page prose duoloquy, Shiva Hive, that asks such penetrating questions as ‘What do you think of the twins Obsession and Devotion?’ Of course, Clark cites Arthur Rimbaud- the perpetually infantile bad boy French poet- as an influence, and there is a certain attempt at Symbolism, but it is really bad. One of the speakers replies, ‘Your question, in Neptunian terms, wants to rotate around a center, the point of unity of “Obsession” and “Devotion”. It asserts a family relation. But I doubt the two conditions ever shared the same womb.’ Ooh, deep, eh? Not only is this not poetry- even in the Lincolnian Gettysburg Address sense, but its puerile philosophy of the sort only poetasters revel in. I think of a fellow named Michael Gause, who once contributed to Cosmoetica, and his utter lack of writing talent being subsumed in a game to try to hide it in banal apothegms. Fortunately, Gause is unconnected and will likely never get published, whereas Clark’s résumé is laden with anal probing, and thus the answer for his publication.
  Yet, every poem is laden with such crap. In Cama he declares ‘Art is permissible sickness’- the sort of declaration that means absolutely nothing, but sounds deep, and reinforces the silly idea that only wackos and sickos can be ‘real artists’, which keeps the Clarks of the world in print, and the Gauses alive. There are also ‘poems’ that make no pretenses to be anything but random images that need to have a reader figure them out. Aside from the fact that it’s a lazy approach to art, Clark’s result is staggeringly unimaginative in what it lays out. This is from Sun On 6

room  Open legs  Shasta murmur  Serpent shape  Throbbing
  Sunbleached ribbon  Wet seat  Brown blade  Fear pulse
Oxacan pillbox  Sun on 6  All my probable sighs boiling in a stiff

  There is no rhyme nor reason to the capitalization and there is nothing that ties all these images together, three of which (underlined) are egregious clichés. Yet, the poem just goes and goes. Real poetry, even if merely so-so, at least attempts to lead the reader, and declare something that should be remembered as a reason for itself. This type of poem utterly refuses engagement, and as such is utterly uncompelling- even were its at random word choices slightly interesting, which they aren’t. It’s an old idea, poorly executed, and no one will care to search for the ‘deeper meaning’ for folk know such ‘poems’ have none- they are all surface with nothing beneath. Neither the list, nor its constituent elements are in the least bit memorable.
  But, perhaps the worst ‘poem’ in this book is on page 49- White Tower. Now, keep in mind the tower poems of a Yeats or Crane. Here it is in its entirety:

We can burn it
It’s infected
fields, records, our fruit
water, mosques, it casts inordinate shadow
I have a lighter, you have fuel
Hatefully designed, well-defended, it kills, sells
We won’t try to climb, we douse
the perimeter, flood the subfloors with fuel
We drench the lobby
White tower that sodomizes horizons

  I can only assume that Clark is in his early thirties or older, yet this is the sort of doggerel that every male teen poet who has ever filled up a notebook has written. from the phallic self-flagellation to the melodramatic rape of the sky, not to mention the hunting, killing, and fire. My god! This has to be a joke. An absolute joke.
  For Clark manages to pull off the near-impossible- the seamless meld of both incoherence and triteness. In a sense, this may be a marvelous thing, and in retrospect one might declare him the Ed Wood of poetry, for just as that filmic schlockmeister accidentally crafted some of the funniest films of all time so may Clark be seen as a poetaster whose wit, unintended, rendered him the unhoaxed Ern Malley of his generation. Most reviews are wholly oblivious to this point, as this one, from the Constant Critic, claims Clark uses ‘dream logic’, and quotes from a poem called Teheran:

  A man and I, in a Burmese restaurant, see a flat black spider floating at the surface of a small aquarium. He puts his face to the water to let the spider attach to it. Pulls his face out of the water, dripping. On his cheek is a ladybug, which is still for a moment before flying off.
  Ride a motorcycle into a house, up a staircase, into a little room where two couples are cooing at babies in prams. I excuse myself overpolitely and maneuver the motorcycle through the room, down the stairs and back outside.

  Yet, is there a thing truly evocative? In real dreams that I’ve had, and those which other people have told me, things rush at you. Think of the best highly focused proems of a Georg Trakl. Dream logic is focused. This is not. This is merely loosely tossed together scenes that have no defining character nor theme. A dream, as is the best of poetry, is unparahrasable. Even being generous one could, at best, call this rather banal, and studied, rehash of classic dream themes, a paraphrase. In fact, that’s exactly what it is, an attempted paraphrase of dream themes that have been done before, and better. Yet, the Constant Critic shows that he does not really apply such crit to himself, as he tries to bolster this tripe by stating, ‘Evocation of dream-narratives here could have proven especially perilous, especially those narratives defined by events loosely associated, neither random nor linear but reminiscent of psychoanalytic conventions, tangents of sex and death and their affiliated symbologies. I think dream-logic suffers a bad poetic reputation because it’s so easy to misrepresent, and because these misrepresentations—which originate in the fear that a dream’s intimacy renders it more challenging to reproduce than any other kind of experience—therefore err on the side of loosey-goosey generalizations, which in turn manifest as poeticisms of a particularly facile, psychological sort. Of course, dream experience is no harder or easier to reproduce than any other kind; it’s just that flat representations of common experience tend to come across as banal at worst, while flat representations of dream wobble and lurch into the precious or cosmic. Sloppily prepared hash browns are merely adequate, while similarly ill-made flan will likely prove inedible; the relatively exotic nature of the task somehow prefigures its difficulty, when in fact it is the presumed difficulty that marks the task as exotic, or, in this case, oneiric.
  His first sentence is puffery, again reinforcing the notion that art is ‘dangerous’ rather than merely higher expression than normal. This is not to minimize art, nor its highest form- poetry, merely to show you that the CC is just bullshitting, as he is part of the problem, not the solution, to contemporary poetry. His next claim about dream logic’s reputation is correct in its conclusion, but not in the wherefores. It suffers not because it’s easy to misrepresent, but because it’s so difficult to represent well, and this is not semantics. ‘Misrepresent’ is not the opposite of ‘represent’, as the CC uses the term. The CC refers to the misrepresentation of the dream logic’s intent, not the construction of the words that convey it, whereas I focus on the representation itself. Intent is wholly a biographical concern, at best, and has no bearing on what a critic should deal with, because many’s the artist who has knowingly tossed up red herrings to try to sway critic to look one way or the other upon a work that its essence cannot alone achieve. The CC does make some good points about why dream logic fails, but that’s exactly why it is so difficult to write, or at least write well. The same problem occurs for list poems like Sun On 6.
  Or in overwrought poems like Limbs Of Life, on page 56:


Gazing at flame in a locked room
unable to leave, sleepless, relieved only in daydream
I reanimate a bed in which I’d lain
loveless and ill once
and heard somewhere outside
provocative, despondent song
whose source I soon sought
and found high up in a nest
I struggled to reach I thought
This creature is also not well
With each higher bough I mounted
the coal-colored bird also climbed
For weeks I brought it seed
bread crumbs, grubs, honey
fudge, crushed nuts, each morning
replenishing a fresh dish
and its caution turned slowly to trust
It was caught, carried home, put into a cage
in a small room from which care had been taken
to remove other such cages
A bird released will resume its flight
as in flameshapes I see gold trees again
and red


  While there is a nice, subtle music underlying this poem I ask, again, what poet out there has not written his poem? Is there a single unique thought? And even if the thought were not unique, is it at least phrased in a new way, or well? There are literally 20 clichéd  phrases and tropes in 23 lines. This is an utter mockery of poetry, and the editor at FS&G should be fired over publishing a poem like this, and a collection like this, that not just reinforces the idea that published poetry is near death, but is actively murdering it. Yet, most critics refuse to even point out such manifest basics as the 20 clichés in 23 lines. Instead, the Constant Critic writes, of this very same poem, ‘I believe this poem, even though I do not believe in any way what the poem claims, that 'A bird released will resume its flight.” And I don’t confuse my belief in what I describe as poetic sincerity with any property of the poet himself. But whether he’s writing about sex or heartache or failure or, well, whatever, Clark’s poems convince.
  How, exactly, does the CC expect anyone else to react to such a criticism? It says nothing to anyone but himself. It becomes, in essence, as hermetic a criticism as Clark’s poems are poems. They may hold deep meaning to Clark but I, and many other poetry lovers, are manifestly deeper, and more intelligent people. Clark (a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop- shocking, eh?) and the Constant Critic are comfortable with poetry that speaks down from anthills, while I long to look up and gaze at the great wonders of art, knowing they are still produceable, as I’ve produced much of it, but fearing that the lack of even desiring such amelioration portends ill for the immediate future.
  Of course, the CC was far from alone in his acceptance of garbage as poetry. In just Googling about I found out that would be or wannabe blurbists abound. Some cretin named Timothy Donnelly claims Clark is ‘a real 'fin de millennium' decadent’. Wow, what an aspiration! Noted trash purveyors, Rain Taxi, declared him ‘amazing and ambitious’, and the Boston Review praised his ‘happy sadomasochism....luxuriance of prurience’, whatever the hell that means. Clark is also an ‘underground’ writer. However, even if one were to conclude that run of the mill workshop poetry is ‘underground’ in the same sense as Nuyoricanism is, I can only ask how many ‘underground’ poets get published by Farrar, Straus, And Giroux?
  Jeff Clark’s Music And Suicide (M&S- an inversion of the S&M theme, with the reader as target?) is an abomination of the art of poetry, as well as a sickening mockery of it. He is a quasi-lyrical poseur who alternates clichés with formless word tossing, and has gotten rewarded with publication by a major press for it. Burn this book. Even my initial laughs when first seeing the title do not make up for the gob of spittle still stinging my eye. I give this book a generous 30 out of 100, for its sometimes so-so music. As I said, I pay my annual dues to the Academy Of American Poets merely so that I can know the enemies of art intimately, and be well informed when I comment upon and criticize them. That said, the enemy must be destroyed, and suffer for their disgrace. Anything less would be unfair, and as lacking in fun as Clark’s pathetic pretentious drivel.

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