Friday, May 14, 2010

Reader's Diary #611- David Seymour: Inter Alia

As someone who's followed this blog over the years might know, I've long been singing the praises of poet Zachariah Wells. I still am, but holy Lord, I didn't get his review of David Seymour's Inter Alia. And by get I don't mean to say I don't agree with it, I mean to say I don't understand it.

"With the exception of 'Quartz,'" Wells writes, "in which Seymour torques his language much tighter, the series is far more lithic than lapidary."

As I type this, there's a red squiggly under the word lithic. Oh look, there's another. That's my laptop's way of telling me it's a spelling mistake. It's not, but that's how rare the word is. Then there's lapidary. Based on my dictionary search, I think Wells is saying that Inter Alia is more stone than stone expert. Considering that the book has geological themes, this observation might be witty if anyone was able to understand it. The rest of his review is similar.

From what I can tell, Wells wasn't particularly fond of the book, though I'm not clear as to why that was. I, on the other hand, mostly enjoyed the book, but I'm not sure if I can justify my feelings any better.

For a couple or so recent years I'd been reading poetry on a pretty regular basis-- a bit of everything, but more contemporary poetry. However, my interest began to fade after a lot of the modern free verse stuff started sounding all the same: borderline to outright gloomy, long-winded, pretentious, slow, heavy, and vague. Sure, lots of it is written technically well, some filled with vivid imagery, but very little that was inspiring or exciting. The publisher's synopsis on the back of Inter Alia is pretty much the exact same synopsis that gets printed on the backs of 90% of all poetry books today:
Seymour's work is characterized by metaphoric reach, deep insight, and above all an attunement to the subtlest of our gestures of connection or disconnection.

Had I picked up Inter Alia when my love affair with poetry had started to wane, I'd have probably thrown it down in disgust. But now that some time has passed, I'm taking things a little slower, more cautious. While Inter Alia was hardly groundbreaking, I think Seymour had mastered contemporary poetry. I like a lot of experimental, offbeat music, but I still appreciate when someone does a rock song really well. Seymour's poetry is like the latter.


You are difficult and disappointed

on the long drive home from the party:
love can be citric, even stern when you let it.

Waves break into the harbour, slush noisily
against the sand. The moon is a burnt
photograph. I try not to think of turtles
nosing into traffic, their blind faith in light,
or worse, of tires pulling toward the deeper water--
green and magnetic-- in our silence. We pass a farmhouse,

then an orchard, but the apples can't be seen.

They pitch and bob in the humid air;
bruising one another gently in the darkness.

--David Seymour, 2005

It's not pretentious, vague, or long-winded, but it is gloomy, slow and heavy. Like a fog. Like contemporary poetry. But I love the narrative, and given the story, how can it be anything else but gloomy, slow and heavy? Plus it's got those beautiful images of apples bumping against one another, the sounds of noisy waves slushing against the sand. There's that wonderful metaphor of the moon as a burnt photograph. It scans well. And it's got those dull d's in the opening line. It's a wonderful poem, as far away from Christian Bok as it might be.

In fact, my least favourite moments in Inter Alia are when Seymour trades in the Fender Stratocaster for a sitar, if you'll recall my music comparison from earlier. The "Fugue for the Gulf of Mexico" at the end, for example, is written for multiple voices, in different coloured fonts, and some words are printed directly behind others, making it impossible to read and imagine. It's a performance piece that has no business in a book.

But for the most part, what David Seymour does, he does well. It may be lithic. But it's lithic-tastic.


Zachariah Wells said...

Hi John,

The "lithic/lapidary" contrast was meant to say that, whereas Seymour was writing about gems, the poems read to me more like undressed rock than cut stones (lapidary being a term used to refer to a concise quotability of style, as well as, more literally, to a concern with stones). Lithic really isn't very obscure--spellcheck software fails to recognize all kinds of standard words; like spellcheck, for instance--particularly considered in context. Had I used the word "monolithic" would you have found it odd? "Lithosphere"? "Lithography"? Believe me, the eds. at Q&Q haven't hesitated to prune the odd esoteric reference in my reviews.

Anyway, I found the book uneven, for reasons I stated pretty clearly--reasons very similar to what you say about everything sounding the same, actually--so I'm not sure I see what you don't get about it.

Zachariah Wells said...

PS: a couple others: neolithic, palaeolithic.

Barbara Bruederlin said...

I am poetically challenged, I fear, but there are elements of this poem that I really like. For the record, your reference to the dull d's in the opening line strike me as rather poetic.

John Mutford said...

Zachariah: I wouldn't have found it as add had you used monolithic or the other words you'd suggested, but I've never come across lithic on its own. It wasn't the only part that gave me trouble. "Negative capability," for instance, was just as problematic. In the end, though, maybe the issue is mine. Perhaps Quill and Quire aims at a reader with a more enriched word power.

Barbara: Why do you feel poetically challenged?

Zachariah Wells said...

I can't speak for Q&Q, but I assume, when I'm writing a review for a publishers' and writers' trade magazine, that readers of my review will be conversant with certain items of prosodic theory. Negative capability is an idea of Keats':

And if you don't know what it means, it is easily found in the same way you found my review. What I suggest in the review is that the capably "cool remove" of Seymour's poems does not open them up to the insecurities and doubts of negative capability. There is, unfortunately, not enough space in a 300-350 word review to expand on this.

John Mutford said...

Zachariah: I had already checked it up in Wikipedia. Still, a reader (at my level at least) has to do an awful lot of work to understand the review. More work than is needed to appreciate the book you were reviewing, I might add. If there wasn't room to expand, was it worth bringing up?

Zachariah Wells said...

Poetry is a lot of work, John, so it's not unreasonable to expect readers of a review of a poetry book to do a little. Any book that can't be appreciated on some level without the technical assistance of an expert reader is, on some level, a deeply flawed book. That does not mean, however, that there are not deeper levels on which to analyze and evaluate it. Film reviewers routinely talk about such things as cinematography, which the average viewer doesn't need to understand to appreciate either the film or the review. However, for someone to _understand_ the medium of film, this is something that must be understood. And a film reviewer, knowing full well that not all readers will get the more recondite aspects of his review, should not avoid those aspects, as the more expert readers of his review will appreciate them. Do you need to play guitar to appreciate Seymour's Huddie Ledbetter poems? No--I can't play guitar, but I did--but I'm sure it helps.

My point is that it's lazy to say that you didn't get a review, when what apparently is the case is that you didn't get it until you did a modicum of research in dictionaries and encyclopediae.

My point is that there is room to expand on _nothing_ in that short a review. I have to count on my readers knowing their stuff and doing their homework if/when they don't.

John Mutford said...

Zachariah: It looks like I have two options: I'm either too stupid to understand your review, or too lazy. I'm ready to admit that your review in Quill and Quire wasn't aimed at readers like me, but fellow professional poets. I'm not prepared to start accepting responsibility beyond that. If you weren't too busy being defensive (are you infallible?) perhaps you could see that my criticisms were constructive. Just because there are a gazillion words in the English language, doesn't mean you have to use the most obscure or intellectual-sounding. Have you lost touch? Who are you having everyday conversations with? Rex Murphy? There's a difference between dumbing something down and making it reasonably accessible.
There's advice here, not an attack.

I'm not averse to doing some work when reading a poem, or a review, or any other piece of writing. I own a dictionary. I have the Internet. I often found myself looking up words or phrases that are unfamiliar to me. However, I think that your review in this case, went beyond what was reasonable. Should my wordbank be the benchmark? Certainly not, but when a reasonably educated man, and an avid reader and fan of poetry (yours included), gets lost, I think that says something beyond me and my laziness.

"I find it amusing that you can say, "Like many of his contemporaries, Seymour likes to show he is well versed in modern and pomo philosophy" when you seem to have a similar stance when it comes to the technicalities of poetry.

Zachariah Wells said...

John, as I said in my first response, my reviews get edited and they are edited by people who aren't poetry specialists. When I'm being obscure, they tell me. They didn't in this instance because the terms are quite simply not very obscure, but are available in basic pocket dictionaries and wikipedia. The principle audience for Q&Q reviews is not, in fact, poets, but librarians and booksellers. They are written, and edited, accordingly.

Just because a piece of criticism is constructive in its intent doesn't mean it's useful. I've expanded on my review in this space in an attempt to be useful. Because I have no special desire to exclude readers from my reviews.

As far as what you see as an irony in my review, I was talking about Seymour's propensity for name-dropping. I have no problem with poetry that traffics in philosophy; I have a problem with poetry that makes a shallow show of the poet's reading as a shortcut towards appearing knowledgeable and profound. If you think that's what I was doing in my review, well, that's a shame, sir.

John Mutford said...

Zachariah: I got my back up over the "lazy" comment, I admit. I was disappointed that the disagreement had deteriorated to that, and so I brought out my own chisel. If it's all the same to you, I'd like to just move on. Somewhere Seymour's Inter Alia has gotten lost. That wasn't my intent and I accept the blame for that. In any case, Zachariah, I still respect you and you may have the last word. Go ahead.