Friday, October 22, 2004

'Listening' to Kyle Dargan

So i'm finally getting around to my review (?) of Kyle Dargan's 'The Listening', it took me longer than i thought because some of the poems required serious analysis. After reading this book several times i couldn't help thinking about how in Chess, the difference between a player rated 'Expert', and a player rated 'Master' is often in the kinds of mistakes that Experts think aren't that significant, but that Masters don't make. I'll start off by saying that i agree with Q. Troupe that it is an impressive debut. Dargan has a true poet's ear for melodic language, and the gift of being able to construct memorable imagery, two things that I think many poets publishing today lack. He also seems to have an intuitive understanding of one of the things that MFA programs are terrible at teaching-the structure of poems. The single biggest thing i hate about reading 'academic' poems is how flat and boring they are, how they often are compilations of excellent descriptions, but lack any tension at their centers. This is something that i think in part comes from many poets (Teachers and Students) not understanding the functional role of structure in a poem. (By 'Structure'- I mean something completely different than 'Form', I mean the way that ideas, images, or emotions in a poem are ordered, regardless of the form.) If one reads the best poems in the language, one will quickly discover that there aren't that many structures which make for successful poems. His grasp of structure (to me) isn't quite mastered, but I think he has a huge head start on most poets with MFAs. He has an expansive vocabulary, although many of his obscure words simply don't pass the substitution test, they often seem to be more sizzle than steak. No doubt some people will be impressed by them, i'm just not one of those people. But those words are legitimate signs of an exceedingly deft intellect. Among the better poems in the book are 'Ahboo', which is very strong for an occasional poem, 'nap.i.ness' (even though he went for the Black Nat okey-doke with the 'Jesus' reference. Please read Revelations 1:14, "wool" is clearly a color reference, not a texture reference.), 'On Men' [Daddy's hands], 'Surrender IV:Muse', and 'Nuclear Winter,' which is a very well done 9-11 poem. There are a lot of poems that are just a whisker off, including; 'Of the Sun', Redefinition', 'Palinode', 'Second Sky', 'Melody Forensic', 'Rock w/you', and 'Letter:Muddy Waters.' One consistent problem for me is that often Dargan is too clever by half, for example, in 'Letter' the first part of the poem tries to get 'experimental' in its typography, but nothing before the 'Who am I?' stanza really helps the poem get to where it's going, one could start the poem there and have a much stronger poem. The other stuff just ends up being a distraction. 'Palinode' is another example, it feels like the epigraph is dragged in to justify the title, otherwise the quote doesn't really seem to relate to the poem. The poem itself suffers from a minor logical flaw, the poem is structurally based on an analogy between the idea of 'cold' and a woman, but the third stanza begins "You aren't cold-", which means the poem now tries to say she isn't like cold, but is, but isn't. He could have avoided this conundrum by beginning the stanza with the interrogative-"Are you cold?", then the rest of the third stanza would have answered the question in a conflicted way that would have made a very nice resolution. The long poem 'Second Sky' is a nice attempt at a serious subject, but the poem, while containing memorable lines and images ("tongues ossified and became runes") lacks any linear arc across its several parts. 'Melody Forensic' is a poem that suffers from a too clever attempt at resolution. The poem could have ended on the pun "eyes wilted from your blow", its work is certainly done after that line (and he could have kept his last line by putting it after "Mr. Cool at the bar" and writing it "so sure he could swallow your blue note whole." But at any rate "could' is much better here than "can", even if the lines are left in their original order. These are to be sure the most minor of flaws, evidence i think, of how much talent Dargan already has and how much potential he shows, this is after all only a first book. Five strong poems is a lot I think for a first book, although I'm not sure that this book is quite as good as Young's 'Most Way Home', Jackson's 'Leaving Saturn', Hayes' 'Muscular Music', Jordan's 'Rise', or Strange's 'Ash', but it's close. When Dargan gets past his "Look Ma, No hands!" stage, and keeps only what propels the poems forward, and fine-tunes his sense of structure and its functional role in poetic Tension/Resolution, i think he will be a formidable and welcome force in American Poetry.
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