Friday, September 26, 2008

Harold Rhenisch's "Free Will"

I admit boredom with a heavy trend these days in contemporary Canadian poetry: the long poem sequence, as well as the thematic book long poem. These often lack the unifying force and narrative drive of the classic long poem, while keeping the disadvantages of repetitive subject matter and content, unfocussed factoids and anecdotal asides, and bloated scope. Lyric concentration is also lost with the added length. I want to be clear: I'm not critical of the efforts so much as the difficulty of climbing the sheer structural rockface. And I realize there are exceptions, and that I've missed much interesting material in this line, as well. But I have read a fair amount of thematic continuation that taxed my goodwill by page four.

One such volume is Harold Rhenisch's Free Will from 2004. Poets, reviewers, critics, readers lie when they say they don't approach any book with expectations or an idea of what it's about, for good or ill. A good book of poetry will overcome any negative assumption (if the reader is careful) anyway. So when I read the blurbs, the book cover intro, the mini-synopses, I looked forward to a volume filled with wit, irreverence, and (O wild hope!) at least mild profundity.

Very early on, those hopes were dashed, somewhat in the manner that one might imagine entering a boxing ring as a challenger to Mike Tyson, having been lead to believe that he was dining at the all-night buffet every day the past three months, when, (frightening sight), he appeared dripping blood from gapped teeth, lean and mean, a pit bull with missing ears whimpering and circling at the floor-ring's corner.

I ignored the poet's intro, since I didn't want to be directed in how to read the poetry, or to receive a dramaturgical overview spanning the centuries.

The book's first poem, "Telling The Truth", is a prime exhibit of what American poet and critic Dana Gioia pegs as pseudo-formalism. Gioia defines this as verse which appears visually as if it were closed, and which perhaps begins with metrical, syllabic, and line-stopped traditional understanding, but then -- musically -- quickly falls apart. The start of "Telling The Truth":

"When someone asks you for the truth,
for God's sake, lie. Give them what they want.

And if they ask again, lie a second time,
a third, a fourth, until you're hoarse;

sign every paper they slide across to you,
their finger on the line, where they ask you

for your house, your car, your stocks;
pay the interest on your debt, accept the truth,

stand before the camera and tell them how it was,
how it's all true -- you blew up that bridge,

stole those plans, took your boss's wife
to Palm Beach -- for you have been to Hell

and back these past few weeks, and deserve
no less than an end to lies, fine print,"

At first glance, this looks like blank couplets in tetrameter, a slight Shakespearian shortening, then. A (perhaps) modern nod to short attention spans. The first line is regular iambic tetrameter, the next line adds a syllable (with the sentence break), but still acts with rhythmic continuity. The next couplet is still regular, though the third line adds three syllables. And with the fifth line, the rhythm falls apart. The first of many nonsensical line breaks begins with "Hell//and", the language becomes increasingly flat (after this quoted segment), the syntax clumsy, the compression unspooled, the voice amorphous.

Elsewhere in modern verse which uses traditional forms, a variance between regularity within that form and modest to wild contrasts going out of bounds from it (in effective cases) act in concert with purposeful changes in mood (careful/ strict to emotionally revelatory, just to give one of many, many examples). No such planning or success as to change in content is evident in the above poem, however.

And the book is witless. How can the contrast be made any more egregious in a book sequence purporting to riff on some of Shakespeare's charms? Monkeys act silly, bananas descend from the theatrical "heavens", "Fortinbras had fallen from favour" in a futuristic fantasy ("10,000 Monkeys Locked in a Room"), "the scene of Rosalind reading Chatelaine/ while having her nails done," ("Iago's Version"), and a book full of other examples strain for wit, even audacious humour, and consistently fall face first into the front balcony tuba.

If the intent was to mirror Shakespeare's great, immortal idea of the eternally ambiguous discrepancy between appearance and reality, so wondrously depicted in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Rhenisch has shown us that his effort isn't even a descriptive footnote to that grandeur.


Zachariah Wells said...


Anonymous said...

Ha ha. Save a forest. And to think "A Midsummer Night's Dream" was set there. Where's the ecology?

Interesting point re light verse. "Free Will" certainly lacks the subversiveness and/or allegorically subtle features of good light verse.

Fine review, Z.