Saturday, November 19, 2011

Elton Glaser's "Downloading the Meltdown"

Though I intended to write about a villanelle I ran across the other day at Verse Daily, upon my return there today I found "Downloading the Meltown" by Elton Glaser. I've read none of Glaser's 6 books, but I do encounter his work from time to time and for whatever reason, his name has always stuck with me. While I can't recall being wowed by anything he's written—no particular line or title comes to mind—I have to say I believe I've liked everything of his I've read, including "Downloading." His poems—to the best of my memory—are crisp and concise with a fine sense of sound, image, and tension—none of the highfalutin, meta-tone that can come with the technically and perspectively gifted.

"Downloading the Meltdown" is a twelve-line poem made of six couplets, each line say 5-7 stresses in length, so mid-to-longish. You can tell from his title that Glaser enjoys sound-play with his use of "Down," that he has and uses an awareness of how his words fit together, play against and with each other. Such play here isn't...subtle. It isn't heavy-handed exactly, but it is meant to be heard (and seen, I suppose). In poetry's current age of disassociation and quasi-unconsciousness, this seems to be a decision Glaser has made in "Downloading" instead of the effect of the random positioning of verbage and its various accoutrement. As a craft element, this sense of decision-making is one of the things I look for in a poem of any variety of poetry. It's what separates art from the mere gathering of its materials.

Glaser employs a good deal of sound device throughout "Downloading," which grants the poem a consistent aural texture. Most often I hear consonance, as in these phrases from lines 1 and 2 respectively, "low and pink" and "summer slack," the d's from line 3, the more subtly used l's of the first three stanzas, and so on. In any given stanza, there's music to be heard. Particularly I like his rhythmic repetitions. Although I would not consider "Downloading" metrical, nor rhythmic in its meditation, there is a punchy phrase repeated throughout, almost like the tonic of a musical scale, that returns the reader's ear to homebase. I like this device because as the poem's images progress, as the narrative progresses, the repetition of this acoustic phrase keeps me (re)focused on the material at hand. Often in poetry this is done with the repetition of an image, which is fine, but such sound-play is a bit trickier and, therefore, laudable in a way that the echo of an image is not. Plus, an image can bear with it a heap of meanings that, typically, a rhythm cannot do. A heart, a cross, a raven, for example. I don't think an iamb, even with its rich tradition, comes to symbolize any comparable list of ideas and notions as so many of our images do, including the aforementioned. I say cross, and everyone arrives at the same shortlist of thoughts and images. I say iamb, and we poets may think of meter, sonnets, Shakespeare as being associated with the iamb, but not represented by it. It's just not the same.

Anyway, as I was saying, Glaser uses a rhythmic trigger throughout the poem as a binding device, as can be heard in the last phrases of his poem's first line: "low and pink." This is echoed in the succeeding two lines with "summer slack" and "case of slow" respectively. And this continues until the poem's ultimate line and final phrase, "odds and ends." The penultimate line finishes with "smoke and rum." There's just too many instances here to say the repetitions of the amphimacer (that's stressed-unstressed-stressed) are an accident. Yet, they are built with a variety of scaffolds such that the stress pattern surrounding each repetition is different. Thus, the poem isn't metrical and never feels that way. The repetitions don't sound stilted. They're sound savvy. Similar repetitions occur within single lines, sometimes by way of the amphimacer, sometimes in the fashion of the poem's title, sometimes of another sound device. The phrase "the hot night, the moon cool" from line 10 is like that, sort of an ironic twist of the language and two spondees back to back—two bacchics, really.

Glaser's images are tight, too, though I don't enjoy them as much as I do his sounds. Lines like "Depressed as a backdoor detective on a case of slow clues" are silly to me. They are nevertheless specific and interestingly worded. The diction isn't slack here, and it does the poem and its readers justice by continually offering us something to look at or think about. There's no fluff, no sagging, and I like all the little Catholic nods, as they torque up the tension quite a bit. If this was just about a guy sitting on his back porch watching the sunset "through a haze of smoke and rum," well, I've read that one before. Probably I've written my own version of that several too many times. But the idea of choirboys and bishop's boudoirs drops the poem into a much wider horizon of possibility. I mean—who is this guy? And why is he in a state of "What's left of me"? Are we talking about a sunset, or a son-set? (whatever that is exactly) I leave that for somebody else to decide.

No comments:

Post a Comment