Frank Rubino’s letter of invitation and inspiration to the weekly Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of January 5
James Tate’s last book of poems is The Government Lake. Like his book Dome of The Hidden Pavilion this collection is homogeneous. Each piece is a…. well let’s forgo labels. The pieces are chunks of paragraph- indented prose, with traditional capitalization and punctuation. They contain complete sentences with subject-verb agreement and maintain, within each piece a fairly consistent register and lexicon— like each one is narrated by the same speaker. Tate said the form was an effective “means of seduction. For one thing, the deceptively simple packaging: the paragraph. People generally do not run for cover when they are confronted with a paragraph or two. The paragraph says to them: I won’t take much of your time, and, if you don’t mind my saying so, I am not known to be arcane, obtuse, precious, or high-fallutin’. Come on in.” *
He uses this indirection to get the poem across. The turns in the poems, from everyday reality to the many unreal or heightened places they want to go, are invisible, you don’t notice them. “Into The Night” starts with a nun having a heart attack outside a church. People go to help her. A brother says comforting words.. “Then she rose up off the ground and hovered there…” You don’t even notice this, taking in one sentence after another, attention almost on automatic. Tate conditions you— but somehow doesn’t spare you— the shock of the ending: “And so the two of them walked off into the night, though it was barely noon.”
(For some fresh hot ways of doing similar things check out the workshop field notes from last week with prose poems by Arthur Russell and a prose-poem hybrid by Shane Wagner.)
This reminds me of what Robert Rauschenberg said in the 1972 film “Painters Painting” https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0207645/. He was kind of on the tail end of Abstract Expressionism. Like many painters of the Abstract Expressionist “movement” he talked about himself as being a “bystander” to his own paintings. That’s a great word for Tate’s narrator. Things happen in Tate’s poems, the oddest things, but their oddness is not made much of, only witnessed. Likewise, Rauschenberg said that his paintings were not meant to be announcements, proclamations, or anything in themselves: “My paintings are invitations to look somewhere else.”
Tate accomplishes this with his plainspoken voice, and the mechanisms of tuned surprise which he deploys throughout his work the way Rauschenberg deployed commercial illustration, and not-arty objects like a bed or stuffed goat.
Many of us use found language or spokenness. It’s like a fiction writer asserting they’re giving you a “true” story. Or is it? How do you keep ‘plainspoken’ from being utilitarian, formulaic and empty? Is plainspoken your “realspoken”?
We’re trying to seduce readers, and you do that by surprising them; how are the turns and transformations of poetry like a seduction?
The AbEx movement was largely fueled by a drive to create newness. In many cases artists removed things from the equation of European easel painting to make novel distillates. Helen Frankenthaller said she wanted to eliminate brushstrokes so the picture seemed “made all at once” with no indication of how the painting was done. By this, she didn’t mean photo-realism, which also eschews brushstrokes. Rauschenberg, coming later sounded like we took a further step, jettisoning the psychological underpinnings to AbEx. The “grief” of the AbEx artists did have one benefit, he conceded: it made them show their brushstrokes. What about your poem? Do you want newness from your work, something never before read?
Brushstrokes or Big Bang splotch?