American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

Inquisitor of Sprats and Compost!

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Rachel Loden

Rachel Loden

On a recent train ride down through New England and New York to Washington I read Rachel Loden’s marvelous new book Dick of the Dead. I chose Loden”s book for the last leg in particular: the Dick of her title is Nixon; I thought him a good talisman to carry into the nation’s capital. A kind of rabbit’s foot, something like the leg of Brezhnev broken off white marble in the book’s third poem, “In the Graveyard of Fallen Monuments.” What I did not expect is that the book brought New York to mind more insistently than D.C.; but not the New York of my own experience, the decaying urban shell of the 1970s; nor the gentrified metropolis of today. Rather, Loden’s poems reminded me of the city mocked and celebrated and preserved for a dubious posterity in the Croaker poems of Fitz-Greene Halleck and Joseph Rodman Drake, written for the New York Evening Post in 1819 and published under the names Croaker (Drake), Croaker, Jr. (Halleck), and Croaker & Co. (Drake and Halleck together).

What do the Croaker poems and Dick of the Dead have in common? Two things: first, a tone — by which I mean a certain attitude about their subjects; and then, a luxuriation in fact, in the whimsical properties of data.

The tone is easier to describe with the Croaker poems, but reading Loden in light of them makes it easier to hear the equivalent quality in hers: the sprightly, even agitated sound of language that comes from mocking a thing and loving it at the same time. You can hear this sound in one of the Croaker poems written by Drake; a fierce bit of nonsense addressed to the surgeon general of the State of New York, sprinkled with as many exclamation marks as a poem by Frank O’Hara:

Joseph Rodman Drake

Joseph Rodman Drake

Oh! Mitchill, lord of granite flints,
Doctus, in law — and wholesome dishes;
Protector of the patent splints,
The foe of whales — the friend of fishes;
“Tom-Codus” — “Septon” — “Phlogobombos!”
What title shall we find to fit ye?
Inquisitor of sprats and compost!
Or Surgeon General of Militia!

We hail thee! — mammoth of the state!
Steam frigate! on the waves of physic —
Equal in practice or debate,
To cure the nation or the phthisic:
The amateur of Tartar dogs!
Wheat-flies, and maggots that create “em!
Of mummies! and of mummy-chogs!
Of brick-bats — lotteries — and pomatum!

The sentiments are just as wonderfully unbalanced in Loden’s work; one never feels that she has seized on Nixon out of disdain, or disdain alone. And the same is true when she writes about other monsters: Cheney, Dubya, George Costanza. “Must not let on that my feelings are increasingly inappropriate,” she writes in “My Subject,” a poem that figures the writer as some kind of researcher. In a lunatic asylum? Perhaps so. But the inappropriate feelings are essential, more so than the research: the latter merely situates Loden’s language; the former gives it an audible character. Consider the sprightliness of “Nineveh Fallen”:

Nineveh fallen. My
Ghostly battalion
Silver-bell ankle rings
Tatterdemalion

Babylon Cadillac. Black
Candle guttering
Nettle-leav’d bellflowers
Sweet-faced American

Or consider “My Picnic with Dick,” with its the nervous repetitions and one awkward enjambment — a tenseness loosened by suave rhyme, as if by champagne:

Full of scheming courtiers…
We let the blinking world go by.
Dick touched me, reopening China.
Champagne with Chou En-Lai

Aside, we let the blinking world go by.
Dick ordered break-ins, absentmindedly.
A toast to Chou En-Lai
or Martha Mitchell, wherever she is.

Dick ordered break-ins, absentmindedly.
Deep Throat, I think, at the south portico —
Martha Mitchell, wherever she is,
Will tell us what we want to know.

But I wouldn’t want these examples to be misleading. Meter and rhyme are the special province of Croaker & Co.; Loden generally writes in free verse, a fluent line that carries away her data like torn branches on the surface of a stream. “The Overmen” is typical in this regard. Set in the present, the leaves on its branch are still green: “etherlords,” “Redmond,” “lines / of code” … they’re like the “Tom Codus” and “Phlogobombos” of Drake, only not yet decayed out of recognition:

The Overmen

All night I dreamt of Xaviero Reyes
and Gerhardt Pym, how a simple

kiss from them, the scantest dollop
of their flaming Christmas pudding

might refuel a mid-sized city
for the time it takes to fall asleep

whispering their names. Godspeed
the nascent Übermen, our etherlords

so kind they phone from chilly
aeroplanes returning from Geneva or

Saigon. Oh speak to us,  devoted
friends! What news from Redmond

and the foreign climes? Is this a jug
of Kool-Aid that you bring, m’lords?

The lost boys drink it and they sing,
they sing. Think you, Luftmensch,

to storm the fastness in this wind?
Here is a Stone Age axe, a catapult,

a battering ram. Ten thousand lines
of code fly through your hands.

It doesn’t matter, by the way, if “Xaviero Reyes” and “Gerhardt Pym” are made up names; they have the character of data whether real or made up; they contribute to a tone, not a meaning. For meaning, the data must become detail.

  • Data: isolated facts pointing outward, referentially.
  • Detail: element in a larger design, pointing inward, thematically.

Ordinarily, we think of finished poems as detail-rich constructions, relegating data to earlier stages of composition. Poets work with data, much as cabinet makers work with wood. But the end result should be more than raw material, even in those cases where the material retains its character as data — when the finished cabinet highlights the grain of the wood.

Data we think of as information that still needs to be processed, that holds no inherent poetic interest. But the line between datum and detail has always been blurry, and modern technology pretty much erases it. In the Age of Google, the processing is never complete: no matter how many times a page is crawled and ranked, read or refreshed, it remains raw data, ready for purposes yet to be determined. This is not quite the same thing as the continual reinterpretation of a text, since interpretation deals with processed data, even if it has to do all the processing itself. The poem may begin as a data dump, but close reading — where possible — brings order to the mess. “The Overmen” is no mess; it’s a well-crafted lyric, a detail-rich construction. But we have to work as readers to fully appreciate that fact. What we appreciate with no work at all is the flow of the data.

One way to mark the transition from data to detail is to identify those places where poets or readers have tried to erase the difference, or at least have tried to facilitate the erasure, and notes are one of the more obvious places to start looking. There are several notes in Dick of the Dead, aids in the processing of information, or better, in the transformation of data to detail. The note on “The Overmen,” for example, identifies “Redmond” as the site of the headquarters of Microsoft Corporation, and provides some historical background for the “jug / of Kool-Aid.” Notes of this sort have a venerable tradition within modernism, though Loden’s use of information — like Marianne Moore’s — cannot be understood in pedagogical terms alone. She has more in common with the truants of flarf than she does with schoolteacher types like Eliot, Pound, or Olson. You could build a lesson around a word like “etherlords,” or around proper nouns like “Nineveh” and “Deep Throat,” but let’s pause to enjoy them before we sit down and take attendance.

The Croaker poems also invite footnoting; they too carry data in their swelling current. And all four editions of the Croakers have included notes of some sort. In the 1860 Bradford Club edition, the meanings of “Phlogobobombus” and “mummy-chogs” are explained — one is a ship, the other a fish — though these meager illuminations do little to light up the poem’s world. For that, the poem’s own words do better service. Take Drake’s “Ode to Impudence.” Does it help to know that the power brokers of old New York  —  of Tammany Hall  — had a thing for Indian regalia? Or that “tick” means debt and “Marshall” is John Marshall, Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court? Of course it does. But these contextual cues only deepen our understanding of a world that still has to be experienced by way of the poem, if the poem is do its work. Or rather, have its fun:

Oh! bear me to some forest thick,
Where wampum’d Choctaws prowl alone;
Where ne’er was heard the name of tick,
And bankrupt laws are quite unknown:
Or to some shop, by bucks abhorr’d,
Where to the longing pauper’s sorrow,
The curst inscription decks the board
Of “Pay to-day and trust to morrow:
Or plunge me in the dungeon tower;
With bolts and turnkeys blast mine eyes;
While, call’d from death by Marshall’s power,
The ghosts of murdered debts arise!
The easy dupes, I’ll wheedle still,
With looks of brass and words of honey;
And having scor’d a decent bill,
Pay off my impudence for money.

What Drake would preserve for us here is the experience of his world, not its meaning, and that experience involves luxuriation. Not the luxury of money and power, but the excess of whimsical shapes that the moneyed and powerful assume. Those shapes in turn assume new meanings when we read closely; our attention then shifts from the poet’s world to the world of the poem. But before we can appreciate the poem as a thematic design, before we can even understand it, we must let it tickle our senses. For some poets, that tickle is a means to an end. For the Croakers, a tickle is its own reward.

The transformation of data to detail is one of the prerequisites for poetry we call serious, serious as art anyhow. Through that transformation, the poem acquires thematic richness and structural complexity, qualities compatible with humor, though humor does not require them. What humor needs instead is the referentiality of data, which points the reader in a different direction.

For the Croakers, humor was a principle of art and life alike. Long before he met Drake, Halleck wrote an “Ode to Good-Humor” (“Deprived of thee, does earth possess / One charm to bind us here below? / In vain may pomp and power caress, / Or wealth its glittering gifts bestow”). And Drake wrote the following for the Croaker series:

The man who frets at worldly strife,
Grows sallow, sour, and thin;
Give us the lad whose happy life
Is one perpetual grin:
He, Midas-like, turns all to gold,
He smiles when others sigh,
Enjoys alike the hot and cold,
And laughs through wet and dry.

There’s fun in every thing we meet,
The greatest, worst, and best;
Existence is a merry treat,
And every speech a jest:
Be’t ours to watch the crowds that pass
Where Mirth’s gay banner waves;
To show fools thro’ a quizzing-glass,
And bastinade the knaves.

The serious world will scold and ban,
In clamour loud and hard,
To hear Meigs called a congressman,
And Paulding styled a bard;
But come what may — the man’s in luck
Who turns it all to glee,
And laughing, cries, with honest Puck,
“Good Lord! what fools ye be.”

Fitz-Greene Halleck

Fitz-Greene Halleck

Drake’s poem is in fact a brief for two projects: laughing at the world, and using one’s laughter to make the world right. The latter is satire’s classic defense (“telling the truth in a jest”); the former is in some respects antithetical to satire, being a form of opposition to all forms of seriousness, moral correction certainly included. The Croaker poets were pulled in both of these directions. When they “show fools thro’ a quizzing-glass, / And bastinade the knaves,” they hark back to Pope and Juvenal; when they offer up life as “a merry treat,” waving “Mirth’s gay banner” at all they come upon, even the worst, they model an early version of “the postmodern wink.”

Humor is also central to Loden’s work, though she defines it differently, finding humor able to accommodate fury as well as mirth. Like the four humors of ancient medicine, which served as the very wellsprings of emotional life, her humor comes from the blood, phlegm, and bile. As she wrote for a roundtable on the topic, “Comedy is not a fall-back position, not something we rehearse to hide our disappointment that ‘life is tragic,’ but rather a full-bodied engagement with suffering, stupidity, contradiction and death.” This is the humor of a line like “Strapped on a lie and buggered heaven,” asked as a question in the book’s title poem: a furious humor made bearable by art.

Thus, for all she shares with Drake and Halleck, Loden has little use for the Croakers’ “perpetual grin.” In the same roundtable discussion cited above, she writes, “Yes, have to say I’m not much enamored with the whole notion of ‘the wink.’ It’s so trivializing. It signals that comic poetry is minor poetry and that comic poets are precious, passionless aesthetes.” That indeed has been one of the criticisms leveled against Drake and Halleck, and homophobia has sometimes given that critique an extra sharp edge.[1] I’m convinced, however, that these three poets would have gotten along famously. I imagine Halleck reading Loden’s line about buggery and wincing — at the fury, not the thought — then offering up this stanza from Don Juan in reply:

Praised be all liars and all lies! Who now
Can tax my mild Muse with misanthropy?
She rings the world’s “Te Deum,” and her brow
Blushes for those who will not: — but to sigh
Is idle; let us like most others bow,
Kiss hands, feet, any part of majesty,
After the good example of “Green Erin,”
Whose shamrock now seems rather worse for wearing.

Ireland’s dishevelment is not very different, tropologically speaking, from the condition of heaven in Loden’s line, but Byron is preferable to Halleck (who edited Byron’s works for the American market) because he continues to wear the mask of Good-Humor.

Good humor was Halleck’s most notable quality and it made him one of the more beloved figures of nineteenth-century verse. Drake — thought by many to be the better writer — died of TB in 1820, and was thus unable to make much of a personal impression on the public. But Halleck lived on, and won over all he met. Even Poe found Halleck charming, writing in 1850: “Personally, he is a man to be admired, respected, but more especially beloved.  His address has all the captivating bonhommie which is the leading feature of his poetry, and, indeed, of his whole moral nature.”

I have so far quoted Croaker poems by Drake alone, so here is an example of Halleck’s wit, from “The Love of Notoriety”:

There’s a wonderful charm in that sort of renown,
Which consists in becoming “the talk of the town;”
’Tis a pleasure which none but “your truly great” feels,
To be followed about by a mob at one’s heels;
And to hear from the gazing and mouth-open throng,
The dear words, “that’s he,” as one trudges along;
While Beauty, all anxious, stands up on tip-toes,
Leans on her beau’s shoulder, and lisps “there he goes.”

For this, the young Dandy, half whalebone, half starch,
Parades Broadway, with the true Steuben march;
A new species of being — created, they say,
By nine London tailors, who ventured one day
To cabbage a spark of Promethean fire,
Which they placed in a German doll stiffen’d with wire,
And formed of the scare-crow a Dandy divine.
But mum about tailors  —  I haven’t paid mine.

Notes

There have been four editions of the Croaker poems subsequent to their initial newspaper publication. All four included notes; the first two were unauthorized:

  • Poems by Croaker, Croaker & Co. and Croaker, Jun. as Published in the Evening Post (New York, 1819)
  • The Life and Works of Joseph Rodman Drake, ed. Frank Lester Pleadwell (Merrymount Press, 1935)

The Bradford Club edition introduced a number of previously unpublished Croaker poems and revisions of some that appeared in 1819; the unnamed editor or editors were apparently close to Halleck or had access to manuscripts that he or Drake had given to friends. Wilson’s edition is also complete, and presumably more correct in its attributions of authorship: it was made with Halleck’s help and credits more of the poems to Drake alone. Pleadwell’s edition excludes the poems written by Halleck alone, but its notes are superior to those of the other editions.

My quotations are very partial. I’ve left out the best  (“To Ennui,” “To Croaker, Junior,” “To Simon”), which I hope to write about some other time, and despite my emphasis on data I have left out the poems thickest with footnote material, the poem for the surgeon general excepted. All quotations come from the Bradford Club edition. I happen to prefer its punctuation.

Rachel Loden’s Dick of the Dead (Ahsahta Press, 2009) was preceded by Hotel Imperium (University of Georgia Press, 1999). Jacket magazine published the humor roundtable she organized, titled “The Dangerfield Conundrum.”

For a vivid illustration of the way Loden assimilates data into her texts, check out the hypertext version of “Cheney Agonistes” at the Ahsahta Press website.

1 [Back to text] See, e.g., John W. M. Hallock, The American Byron: Homosexuality and the Fall of Fitz-Greene Halleck (University of Wisconsin Press, 2000).

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One Response

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  1. that title definitely had me scared for a moment

    Davis

    July 2, 2009 at 10:29 am


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