Saturday, March 6, 2010

Life is Like a Side of Bacon, Miller Williams, and More

I am sure that many of my readers are familiar with Charles Dickens' conceit of melodrama as a side of bacon. It begins chapter 17 of Oliver Twist:

It is the custom on the stage, in all good murderous melodramas, to present the tragic and all the comic scenes, in as regular alternation, as the layers of red and white in a side of streaky bacon. The hero sinks upon his straw bed, weighed down by fetters and misfortunes; in the next scene, his faithful but unconscious squire regales the audience with a comic song.

After more illustrations from the stage, Dickens give us this summation:

Such changes appear absurd; but they are not so unnatural as they would seem at first sight. The transitions in real life from well-spread boards to death-beds, and from mourning-weeds to holiday garments, are not a whit less startling; only, there we are busy actors, instead of passive lookers-on, which makes a vast difference.

The last two weeks for me have been one lean side of bacon, dominated more by the red of wrath than the softness of fat. I really am taken by Dickens' metaphor, probably because I am the son of a butcher. It also calls to mind greasy x-bacon sandwiches (pronounced sheez-baycone) I enjoyed in Arcoverde, filled with slabs of bacon thick as pork chops which I know have taken off five years of my life (oh, but it was worth it). There you have it--the salty, fatty, triglyceride-ridden savor of junk food and the quiet accumulation of platelets in the aorta. The red and the white.

But let's put away my frustrations as they really have no bearing on what I'd like to address on this blog.

I was thinking of writing a short note about Miller Williams, James Whitehead, and other poets of that generation that are either from the same area (the Arkansas MFA program) or who share generational and aesthetic ties (the late George Garrett, whose poetry and short fiction I became more acquainted with on vacation in December, comes immediately to mind). Alas, my prime example as critic is neither Eliot, nor Adorno, but Popeye the sailor man. That is to say, "I yam what I yam, I likes what I likes." In other words, I'm not much of a critic, or at least don't consider myself as such and have not exercised the muscles involved. I intend to change that one day, but that day is not today. I don't want that to stop me, however, from pointing interested readers in the direction of writers who deserve attention.

I was thrilled to see Leon Stokesbury featured on Brian Brodeur's How a Poem Happens. Mr. Stokesbury has edited a wonderful anthology of southern poets entitled The Made Thing. It is not to be missed. It's a comprehensive overview and a strong introduction to Southern American poetry of the last half of the twentieth century. Oops, that's me trying to play cricket. More important than the qualifiers "comprehensive," "definitive," "good introduction" is "damn good read," and that's this book.

So, getting back to Miller Williams. He's certainly had a good career, one of his many honors being one among the chosen few to read at an inaugural address for a U.S. president (Clinton). Few may remember that Billy Collins was in effect discovered by Miller Williams, and they seem to share an affinity for intellectual wit and a strict avoidence of obscurity. Williams avoids the pitfalls that have probably made Collins the more famous (if I were so inclined, I'd count how many times Collins refers to "the heart" in his work--it's his sugary signature). Williams excels at dramatic monologue -- I would say that his poem "Ruby Tells All" stands up with the best in the form in English poetry.

Williams came to mind as I was reading David Mason's review of the late Michael Donaghy's collected prose and poems in the latest Dark Horse (and happily available online). Mason laments the lack of word regarding Donaghy in the States, and I share his regret. And, again as Mason points out, Donaghy was a master of the dramatic voice, resulting in some fine dramatic monologues. And I thought about Williams, little spoken of outside of the Fayetville crowd these days (although his last book was reviewed in the New York Times, so he's not exactly wallowing in neglect), and his entertaining, moving, and stimulating dramatic poems. Some of the most-read and read-again volumes in my poetry collection are Williams' Selected Poems and Donaghy's collections.

Speaking of Williams, again, it was nice to read a review of his latest book as part of the editorial for the newest Unsplendid. Editor Douglas Basford pulls no punches, and I think the result is a good assessment of the poet's strengths and weaknesses. He gives the red and the white of it, so to speak.

As you're enjoying the rest of that issue of Unsplendid, don't miss my little offering, "Sparkles from the Wheel," which steals its title and dominant image from a poem by Whitman.

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