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What is he doing?

By (January 1, 2011) One Comment

On technique in Glyn Maxwell’s poetry

A Glyn Maxwell poem encourages us towards an emotion or a point of view not by stating it, often not even by showing it, but by bringing us in stages to cooperate in doing the work of recreating it. This is because to read his poems sensibly we end up retracing the paths he took in writing them, until we arrive at thoughts the way Maxwell originally discovered them. In this way reading a Glyn Maxwell poem occurs in stages.

The first stage – that of trust – occurs before we even start to read. It is the anticipation of knowing that we are about to encounter a work of great skill – a reliable assumption based on previous excursions with Maxwell. We trust that Maxwell himself has invested in the act of creating the poem: each is a virtuoso performance, suspending this or that certainty, trusting, leaping. Each new poem’s creation is a high-wire act, and it is made possible because there are indeed wires: the formal elements of poetry are the balancing and guide wires supporting each poem’s creation, allowing the poet to perform his stunts aloft.

Maxwell lives by the dictum of his former teacher, Derek Walcott: “Don’t write poems, write verse.” He has filled numerous notebooks with formal verse exercises, honing his use of rhythm and rhyme (and the other tools in the poet’s toolbox) as a vocalist will practice scales and solfège. The result is a process of continual discovery of small effects that he accumulates as an extension of traditional poetic techniques, layering his poems with them increasingly richly as he develops. We will examine some examples of these effects in a moment.

Since these poems originate as the delighted exercises of a keen and focused mind, we are attracted to them in kind. Starting down a Glyn Maxwell poem we quickly proceed from trust to the stage of delight, a delight in language as an advanced form of play. Each line of a Maxwell poem is experienced twofold, and firstly it is this echo of the poet’s delight which strikes our mind’s ear. Only after this do we move to the local, literal meaning and function of each line.

To illustrate this sheer delight, take Maxwell’s poem, “The Weather Guy”:


Hurricane This is scaring us,
Hurricane That’s not far behind,
and we’re not turning our backs one second.
We look at the screen all day. We find

Hurricane This still flapping away
at the shirt of Tom the Weather Guy.
Canada throws an arm around him.
Hurricane That just bats an eye.

Hurricane This is whipping off
the Carolinas’ tablecloth;
Hurricane That, amused by this,
is beating ocean into froth.

Hurricane This is playing wolf
to New York City’s clever pig;
Noah’s nailing down his roof
so when it comes it’s nothing big.

Hurricane This is burning out
off Providence; Hurricane That
is disappointing Tom, who’d dreamt
of half Virginia pounded flat.

And Hurricane This was called Renee.
And Hurricane That was Stan.
And Canada pats Tom’s shoulder now
as he hands us back to Jenni-Ann,

who asks about his weekend plans,
which are much the same as ours,
so maybe we’ll see him nosing out
of a local brawl of cars,

and maybe he’ll give us the wave he gets
when the heat kicks in and how,
and it hits the heights he said it would
this far upstate by now.

More likely he’ll just speed away.
And I’d be shy of the love
of those who have to live by what
I have to warn them of.

Notice the precision of the weatherman at the end of his segment shown turning just so that Canada, in the map projected on the screen behind him, appears to pat his shoulder – and how this pat on the shoulder then does double duty as characterizing the debased self-congratulatory persona of this local TV star. The poem goes on to suggest the superficial admiration which people have for the weatherman in a heightened shift in tone at the end, accompanying the emergence of an “I” as narrator. The delight of the opening seems to have motivated Maxwell onward toward this concluding meaning. Lurking behind this poem, with its sentiment of people just sitting around watching the weather (and here, by extension, the weatherman), is a poem by Robert Frost, “Neither Out Far Nor In Deep,” which portrays the mass of ordinary people sitting around watching the sea all day, ending on a similar tone of rebuke by the poet:

The land may vary more;
But wherever the truth may be—
The water comes ashore,
And the people look at the sea.

They cannot look out far.
They cannot look in deep.
But when was that ever a bar
To any watch they keep?

This two-fold impression of Maxwell’s stanzas – a delight motivating us to meaning – mirrors the process he has gone through in constructing them, micro-managing his meaning-effects in tandem toward a larger emerging (emotional) thesis. In other words, Maxwell often seems to discover his own meaning and set it down on the fly in the act of composition. Such a poem proceeds as a sequence of rapid, small effects, in which each new effect justifies the previous one by giving it sense in a larger, complex stanza-sentence he is singing forth.

For example, in the above lines about the weatherman, Maxwell has discovered the “meaning” of the pat on the back as a result of, and to further justify, the physical perception of the pat created by Canada seeming to move over the weatherman’s shoulder as he turns. Maxwell then keeps the game going by seeding a later stanza with this discovery of the weatherman’s superficial self-importance, using it to propel the poem yet further, producing an ultimately coherent thesis out of the whole. Maxwell revises many of his poems in this way, honing and shaping them once this intentionality of meaning is established.

Thus a particular line may rest on the formal effects of rhyme and rhythm, playing syntactic sense against stanzaic form, or effects may be chosen from a much richer storehouse of concepts and micro-relations that Maxwell is building over time. Maxwell is continuously deepening the possibilities and scope of these poems as he develops his art, achieving such a sustained and useful compression over time that his verse finally fuses meaning and effect in a diamond-like brilliance. Look at this start from “Flags and Candles” – a later poem of similar length to “The Weather Guy”:

Flags line up an hour before they’re chosen,
wave back along the row at others like them.
Candles sit in boxes or lie still,

sealed, and each imagines what will happen.
Flags will not accept the explanation
of why they were not needed as they are now.

Candles feel they’re made of stuff that’s soft
for a good cause, though maybe not their own cause.
Tall flags love all flags if it’s these flags.

What is Maxwell discovering in that third stanza as he traipses through his own creating? The first line, “Candles feel they’re made of stuff that’s soft,” has emerged quite competently, with its delicate flow of vowels punctuated with soft f sounds – but its effect-meaning (I mean the double feeling of a delightful technique fused with sense) is not sufficiently inevitable for Maxwell, who is thus motivated to expand on it in the next half line with, “…for a good cause.” But now he’s in the middle of a line, all revved up and still unsatisfied at a somewhat cryptic juncture, and so to justify it he needs to extend it yet further with another effect-meaning. The build of the next effect we can call a repetition-with-complexity, i.e. repeating and expanding based on the word “cause”, making the whole line, “for a good cause, though maybe not their own cause.”

Now, in composing this sequence of effects, what meaning has he brought forth? On the fly and rapidly associating Maxwell has noticed that if candles are soft they can be archetypally female – and so for a half-line he climbs inside their collective psyche and speaks out their inner monologue of perhaps mild indignation – or at least wan reflection – at their fate, that they are built in service to others rather than for “their own cause.” In so doing he creates a bang-on opportunity to cap this off with the candles’ opposite number, the flags, as masculine and tall.

Of a mind now to echo and enhance the meta-effect of repetition-with-complexity, Maxwell comes out with the next line all of a piece: “Tall flags love all flags if it’s these flags.” This observation finds its meaning in the national pride which the flag itself symbolizes, together with its echo of nationalism expressed as exclusion, in the ending phrase, “…if it’s these flags.” In doing so Maxwell re-focuses the poem away from the feminine-masculine psyche of candles and flags and back into the realm of their outward, symbolic functions. That is a great distance to travel in the space of these three short lines.

It doesn’t stop there. After exploring in successive stanzas the outward ritual of flags versus the inward pysche of candles, then comes the capper: at the end of the poem (as it did in “The Weather Guy”) there appears a macro observer, a citizen, an actual “I” on the scene. In a pre-publication version of this poem (which the poet shared with me) it happens like this:

When I wave flags, flags think it’s the world waving
while flags are holding fast. When I light candles,
the sense of something reverently bowing

holds me and I tremble like the shadows.
Flags again know nothing and they’re flying.
Candles shed a light and burn to darkness.

There is a moment of, a shudder of, a genuine human emotion here which comes burling into the poem unbidden, a fleeting apprehension of significance in the felt preference for the ritual of the candle over the emptied symbol of the flag – and all the cleverness suddenly adds up to something real, there is actual effect in the world where we really are. This raw glimpse of a genuine emotion entering the poem works – that is, it communicates rather than obtrudes as melodrama – because the ground of the moment has been cleared through the insistently refined technical infighting of all the previous stanzas (not shown here) building up to this. What is more, the resulting expression of feeling and preference has a greater chance of influencing us, for we have just recreated the work of this discovery by following along the same successive stages of effecting this meaning as the poet has created it.

In filmmaking this corresponds to something like the early Godard. In Breathless, Godard discovers a new meta-language for punctuating a scene via a sequence of spontaneous self-delighted cuts made in the editing room. Once having established this new cutting technique for representing how a scene unfolds, he then transcends it by moving beyond its own established rhythm – and by startling us in just this way, he communicates something found and genuinely earned.

Maxwell’s lens is often the poetic equivalent of cutting from an extreme close up to a medium shot – but in syntax rather than in any image he is portraying, giving us for example just enough to make a phrase recognizable and then actually expanding it into something else. For example, here is a stanza from the poem “Sufficient Time”: “Sufficient time has passed, and now the girl / who was last seen has broken out of local / news and made the nationals…” When we encounter the phrase “who was last seen…” we expect it will be completed in the customary journalistic fashion. Maxwell has given us just enough of this phrase to get this meaning, but then without completing it he “cuts” syntactically to a larger continuation.

In fact it isn’t primarily cinematic technique which has informed Maxwell’s affinity for form and compression, so much as it is that he is building his talent on insights and progress made by particular poets occupying the top tier of formal English poetry as Maxwell was coming into his own. Joseph Brodsky had switched into writing English-language poetry upon emigrating from Russia in the early 1970s at the top of his form, and in his poems from about 1974 onwards we find something really new: an almost fractal-like brilliance of encoded meaning that travels down the levels of his stanzas’ lines. We can trace an iterative deepening of this technique by Brodsky as well as its extension by his close friend Derek Walcott over subsequent years, culminating in Walcott’s towering book-length formal poem Omeros, where a new mode of encoding poetic meaning has become at once so balanced and complex, so new and so masterful – and so naturally narrative – that it sustains at a peak level nearly 300 pages of continuous rhymed verse. These are the shoulders on which our generation of English poets rest.

Maxwell brings an unending keenness of observation to match the inventiveness of his micro-maneuvering in form, and this is used to best effect in a poem which paints a scene moving in time, such as a dinner party or an execution. He is never far from the theme of the compromised perfection of mortal love. His roving intellect may also lead him variously to mythology, English or European history, or something we think we already know well, such as a fairy tale or a contemporary voice – a taxi driver, a postman. Here in the concluding lines from “The Taxi Driver” the driver’s monologue has transformed from shallow musing on a group of nuns who have entered his taxi to a mood of religious reflection:

I breathe. Before I came into their lives
life was a rainy day by a grey roadside,
waiting while the cars go sloshing by,
wondering who’ll come. And it is I,
I chuckle to myself, I never say so,
it is I, and I transport you through the dark
of daytime and the lights of night! Disciples,
waiting in the back, awaiting word,
word from me, my news, my revelation,
the point of it, the bottom of all things!
And when that tale’s the tale I tell myself,
how sweet it is to say no word at all,
to hold my poor apostles there dumbfounded,
with a gospel of true silence. When the car stops,
and the door opens back into their lives,
nothing is what it was, they saw the future,
and it told them nothing, and when those ones pay me
they pay me out of pity, like perhaps
I always think they’d try to pay the Lord
if they found him sitting still by any roadside.

Sometimes Maxwell’s attention is framed by a situation that reflects poetically on our larger world, as in “Refugees in Massachusetts,” where among a community of refugees from the former Yugoslavia living in a US town there is a member of the very regime who was oppressing them, and everyone there knows it and lives with it. Here is how the poem ends:

Might see him smoking by the baseball field,
padding towards the diner
lip-reading in the library. That man
escaped here, he too sobbed or stared ahead,
made landfall; he eats pretzels in the line.
They are aware he’s there
both when he is and isn’t there. No crimes
will stick in the new life. There is no court
in session for the narratives and claims
their voices split to make,
no angles to examine. There are times
they jump and times they clasp. There is a wood
they come to in a downpour, or have dreams
they come to in a downpour.

At other times his poems range philosophically on the larger themes that also occupy our real thoughts, giving us a corresponding dignity in thinking them. One later poem in this mode, “Thinking: Earth”, is a maturely fused and advanced compendium of thought-effects reflecting on our current age of transformation to the single, shared consciousness on Earth that we are living toward: “Earth. / Seen only in its spot by pilots strapped / for oxygen, their exhalations trapped / inside a crystal ball, / some ghost of myth / foreshadowed in a scribble / on a cave wall.” (…) “Between twin hegemons / of ice and sand we wait, where the mindful seasons, / autumntime, springtime, / lie down a while, / old exiled diplomats / whose answers were too intricate, too rich / for the liking of the tsar.” These stanzas reward our efforts to unwind them, and they strike a chord because they resonate with the larger world around us.

In other poems irrational fears or almost-glimpses of an uncomfortably unmapped larger reality impinge the edges of Maxwell’s lines, as in the muffled, circumscript ending of the poem, “Anything but the Case”: “And he lets us alone or, at worst, as we tiptoe by, / Feels we’re familiar, can’t for the world say why.” In fact by now beneath the scrim of delight of his poems Maxwell has managed to lodge quite a meaningful set of challenging topics and concerns for us.

Maxwell’s stanzas are as attractive as they are meaningful because in the moment of creating them he lets himself chain rapidly. Each time he re-enters that space of micro-management in delight and trust, in total confidence of play, he is truly alive as an explorer there, bringing back as the stanza a vital, formal imprint of the chaining of consciousness there – a kind of record of the gaps. Writing poetry like this is thus literally to “channel” one’s consciousness, and in following down the same paths as active readers we are collaboratively “channeled” in kind. The pleasure of this is similar to that of two chess players starting down the path of an initially familiar opening, and it is pleasurable because it serves some vital purposes. Chiefly, by exercising in play and delight the channels we rely on for communication and meaning, it keeps them pure. This is what Eliot’s self-declared responsibility (echoed by Auden in 1956), to purify the language, is really all about.

Equally significant is that as these forms evolve, so too does our culture – i.e. our shared consciousness – evolve in kind. Now this is certainly an “exo-literary” explanation of the thing – and frankly no one really knows the whole story of what we are really doing – not even what we are doing as people – much less what we are doing as poets. Still, whatever it is we’re doing, Maxwell is doing it exceedingly well.

Andrew Singer is a poet and short story writer, illustrator, cultural journalist and university instructor based in Budapest. A graduate in Poetry from the Creative Writing Program at Boston University, he is currently hard at work on his first novel.