Joe Luna and clever poetry

I’ve been intending to do this for a while and have been stung into action by the inclusion of some Luna poems in the Better than Language anthology. Of the current group of younger poets, Luna is at the ‘clever’ end of the spectrum in a couple of ways, he says complex things in deceptive ways and these deceptions encourage the reader to think about the unspoken world that moves around the poem. This, by any definition, is clever stuff but there are number of pitfalls with cleverness. The first of these is being clever for the sake of being clever whereby the poet uses an obscure allusion or reference to say something that could be said in a more direct manner. The next is the use of the clever as a means of plumage and/or display. The last main trap (there are many others) is when poets disguise some banality by means of intellectual glitter – a trick that is fundamentally dishonest. Even our best poets seem incapable of falling into these from time to time.

I am however always ready to be impressed by the clever phrase, the point made with wit and intelligence, the off kilter but compelling juxtaposition etc etc, but I also like to think that I’m getting better at identifying where the above misdemeanours occur.

There’s a degree of nervousness that I need to address. I’m of the view that writing about clever oblique work should be done in as clear and direct a fashion as possible without underplaying the subtleties of the work. I’m also trying to find different ways to write about poetry so what follows is more than a little experimental.

When writing about Luna’s contribution to Better than Language I made the entirely provisional observation that what might matter is not what’s in the text but what’s around it. Since then I’ve been a bit concerned that this observation is both too clever for its own good and (much worse) inaccurate. So I’ve spent some time this morning with more of Luna’s work in an attempt to kick this particular piece of glibness into touch. This went reasonably well until I came to ‘Life’ in the ‘Lovers’ collection which starts like this:

         Life harping on at its believable
he will I say not
an incision, but life
itself. Now bite one off - the observable
universe wrapped in snow, an ulcer
sinks into a song.........

I don’t intend to undertake a detailed analysis of ‘Life’ or the above extract but I do want to use it as an illustration of what I mean about stuff going on outside and around the poem. In these eight lines we’re given a very wide field to play in, ‘life itself’ ‘the observable / universe’ would indicate that we’re in some kind of abstract territory but this is undercut by the particular, ulcers, incisions, angles and a life that harps on. This kind of polarity invites me as an attentive reader to fill in the gaps between the two and to concentrate on what might be placed there. The rest of the poem continues to make this demand on me and it’s a deeply absorbing process.

I’d now like to try and pin down this particular kind of cleverness by having a closer look at ‘For the White Lake Blot” which is on the remarkable Claudius App.

In my new found determination to experiment with ways of writing about poetry, here’s a list of things that I want to say:

  1. this teeters on the brink of the hyper clever which might not be a good thing;
  2. the way that the line endings/ruptures function throws up many questions about form but that’s probably the intention;
  3. the repetition at the start of part 4 is really effective although I do accept that I’m a bit obsessed by the reiteration business and am therefore biased. As with the enjambment I could go on about this for a very long time;
  4. section three fits Prynne’s breathtakingly startling criteria, the last line comes right out of nowhere and disturbs/challenges what’s gone before;
  5. there may be a whiff of the too clever hanging over section three but this is avoided or redeemed by lines 4 and 8 which are good enough to allay any concerns about pretension;
  6. I worry about section 7’s “read my lip gloss’ (which is naff) playing off against “in kid solemnity” (which isn’t) and my concern is whether this naff/not naff ploy is deliberate or unwitting;
  7. there is an argument to be had as to whether or not the poem’s last stanza is essential or annoyingly frivolous/gratuitous/smug. What’s interesting is that I don’t yet know which side I’m on.

There are some poems that don’t work or aren’t completely successful or feel a bit forced and I think this is primarily due to the nature of the risks that Luna is taking. It is much easier to do complex or abstract poetry in a single register but Luna is employing a number of registers not only as a means of expression but also as an integral part of that expression and in the very best poems he’s nodding in the direction of what might be going on rather than telling us. The risk with this is that the registers can begin to lose clarity or edge and the normally incisive tone descends into mere parody of itself. Fortunately this is rare in Tuna’s work but ‘esque’ from the Better than Language anthology is to my mind an example things beginning to get a bit smug and empty. The poem ends with this:

Four score and seven monkeys
late appeal makes
tied to win reprieve
conscious & waving & and drowning &
bent toward the sun at your
disposal well today we are giving
back to a new
future largesse replete
in range
of all my early poetry
on weather systems in Nevada

but I could not help it

Unless we’re being really ironic here, the last five lines are really quite bad, aren’t they? The reference to weather systems is neither odd enough nor vivid enough to justify/account for the mannered weakness of the last two lines. This clunkiness isn’t representative of the vast majority of Luna’s work but it does I think indicate the kind of risks that he runs.

On a final note, in the protracted discussion with Chris Goode, I did make the point that the unifying factors for me were more about desire, playfulness and subversion than ‘queerness’. I really do not want to reignite that debate but I would like to say that Luna manages to create poems that play with desire and yearning to subvert both political and poetic forms and that this is yet another reason for being optimistic about the future of British poetry.


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