As I’ve said before, class, the worst you can do is to take this stuff seriously. Experience it before you try to understand it.
A poem is a playing with words to make what you think you know known in a way you’d not known before. As Eliot put it: “You had the experience but missed the meaning.” A poem takes you by surprise, sometimes by the throat. While we’re at it, throw in that the word-play should half memorize itself—that you find you’re infiltrated—can’t get some of it out of your mind—out of your lungs—like those cigarette jingles on the radio seventy years ago—“So round. So firm. So fully packed. So free and easy on the draw.” The good part of this is the memes that invade your memory can also be music. Before our revels are over, we’ll try to make a judgment as to whether David Joel Freidman’s stuff really has music and meaning or is just a jingle. And a final point—take this down, take down this, this down take—poetry is an effort to breach the communication barrier by reinventing the language which is what I am trying to do right now in this introductory, free-associational, prose/poetry paragraph. I want to entangle your attention, leave you befuddled, get you to experience what David Joel Friedman is doing—what I think he’s doing—in Soldier Quick With Rain.
First a book reviewer’s chores. Friedman is new to me. I’d been alerted that he was writing prose/poetry that has neither rhyme nor ostensible reason but that didn’t bother me. As a superannuated new critic I’m prepared for work that by indirection finds direction out. I know that Updike and Chandler and Willa Cather often levitate into poetry. Hemingway’s Lieutenant Henry playing ceremonial billiards with the ancient Count Greffi near the end of Farewell To Arms (1929) invaded my memory as permanently as anything in Eliot’s “The Wasteland” (1922). I’m thinking of passages that don’t explicate but by their texture, pauses, music, convey value—truth, beauty, goodness—to drag those old dowagers in, flashing their bifocals in the late afternoon sun as they nod their collective heads sipping their sibilating syllogisms. (Friedman’s free-floating alliteration has got to me!)
I made the mistake I warned you of in my first sentence, the misstep of trying to understand before experiencing. After all, Friedman is a real contender, who according to the back cover, recently “won the National Poetry Series open competition for his earlier book [of prose/poetry] The Welcome…” I started reading Soldier Quick my short-cut way, that is, jotting down all references that I didn’t know or didn’t see fitted in logically, planning to google or OED diddledeedew them later. I wound up with lists and listlessness. So I stopped shoving the stuff through the rational processor and let it flow through the prism of my imagination as I should have done to begin with. Here’s “Preface to the Green Bear,” one of the 53 poetry/paragraphs that usually fill less than a quarter of the page:
There was a preface to the green bear. In the old days, in the golden days, the sleigh bells rang through the hills of sleep, and the cutpurse endured his hour of silence. Forgive me, said the green bear, this is a tract of madness. Wherever you sleep, I too am cruel, wherever you weep, I too am incendiary. I plod like a churl to my destination, and pay all with a groat of pittance. A changeling thou art, a deliquescence to be savored, a school of fish, a have-me-not, a self-say of the contraband.
Huh? I repeat: Huh? You don’t explicate that any more than you explicate the Marx Brothers. You experience them. Harpo is leaning against the wall of a bank and a policeman orders him to move: “Think you’re holding up the...