Theatre of the Absurd: No Poetry Without Drama
Lost Poet, Jesse Glass (BlazeVox)
Four plays by a fascinating US post-avant poet. I got the book, in a selection of ten 'wild and weird' titles (for $100, incl.) from the innovative US post-avant publisher BlazeVox.
Reading plays is a real test, of how easily their writer can keep your attention, solely by poetic and dramatic powers with language. This may well seem an obvious statement, but many plays that are undoubtedly stage masterpieces, read quite flat - Arthur Miller is an example, as is Priestley. Luckily, Glass isn't in this category (nor was Tennessee Williams) - his texts are a delight to read. The centre piece play The Lost Poet is a real masterpiece, a hilarious but very insightful dramatisation of the 'lost' 19th century American poet Thomas Chivers and his complex (not to say fraudulent) friendship with Edgar Allan Poe:
It would be proper to start with an edition of 1000 copies... The only
condition, I am afraid, upon which (your) poem can be printed, is that
you print at your own expense...
Glass is brilliant on this nervy mutuality, the blatantly mendicant Poe ensnaring the 'poetaster' Chivers in some hilarious ideas for money making. And there is a fabulous scene in Poe's New York slum apartment, with a doll of his consumptive wife coughing rhythmically:
Dear Chivers! Come in, man. As you can see we've run out of wood
this morning, so the house is a bit cold. Do keep your coat and gloves
on while I slip back beneath the covers...(POE GETS BACK IN BED.)
Do not mind Virginia, sir...she ruptured a blood vessel while singing a
few weeks back...
CHIVERS( TAKING THE DOLL'S WRIST)
Her pulse is almost non-existent!
Do not be alarmed, Dr Chivers. A non-existent pulse is congenital
among the Clemms.
(THE DOLL COUGHS AGAIN.)
What Glass does is use the liberating ideas of Artaud and Arabal, to create dramas which can be read - and crucially performed - in the imagination. This is through the febrile intensity of his texts, with a real gift for the poetically grotesque:
Then I saw another place - a mill filled with gears and swinging pendulums.
And I saw a King and Queen walk into that room and, the King took his
sword and beheaded the Queen, and the Queen rose up without a head and
decapitated the King, and their blood rolled in rivers out of the mill and
across the state. From that blood grew many black castles, and the dead
stood up in their graves and clawed their way out of the earth to live in
those black castles...
Reading the book, I became convinced that poetry itself has missed a trick, a fertile influence, a source of energy and revitalisation. Too many poems - both 'mainstream' and 'experimental' - have little sense of dramatic intensity, or of any vital pressure behind their creation. We need this drive. almost this mania. And it may well come now from experimentation with content, not form. Indeed, there is clearly a trend today for experimental narrative, often with surreal - or even grotesque and hyperreal - contents. This was inevitable, given the narrowly claustrophobic rut into which lyrical poetry has sunk.
Impressive as some of this narrative work is though, we are still only at the beginning of the process. But without this ongoing spark of vitality, poets of supposedly great lyrical ability will go on declaring themselves masters of form. Yet - to quote Pound's criticism of a lyrical poet years ago - no one can remember a line from their poems.
(Of course, Heaney has used classical Greek drama to try and get some purchase on public and political debate, but with mixed results. It seems partly an affectation and rather tactical, with not enough at stake but his liberal reputation.)
As said, Artaud is the obvious name to drop here, especially his seminal writing on 'theatre of cruelty' - which also cover much material on poetic effects and intensity, filtered through his near maniacal sense of everything being at stake.
The other standout play in Glass' book is Homeless in America, which cuts between freezing beggars on the streets of Milwaukee and the 1986 Challenger disaster, watched live by millions worldwide. This seemed almost Shakespearian (or perhaps 'Shakespeherian') in its mixing of high and low:
MAN IN TOP HAT
One night I stayed out so late on a cold night. The kind of night makes
the insides of your nostrils burn like a lit match been hammered up each
one. I was trying to keep warm...then the lake started screaming with
lips of ice, and I heard God talking, telling the lake to keep quiet, and not
get too riled because the good days were coming. But the lake kept
screaming, looking up at the cold sky with one big old round black eye.
The lake don't believe in good days...but God wasn't there anymore,
just this big round laughing hole in the sky and the lake she started
howling and screaming and groaning and moaning.
So, I think poetry needs more dramatic impact. I'm emphatically not calling for any more self-righteous poems addressing 'issues'; I'm saying we need more confrontation, more challenge to the prevailing cultural orthodoxies, more discomfort for the reader.
Obviously, Eliot invested a huge amount of his genius in trying to revise verse drama, which ultimately failed. That's definitely a step too far now. But a playwright like David Mamet is arguably producing far greater poetry, chronicling the 'dialect of the tribe' far more effectively, than most poets now writing.
© Paul Sutton 2010