Sunday, July 18, 2010

A Couple by Caples

Avid Diva is a is a tiny pamphlet reproduced from, or made to look as if it was reproduced from, a typewritten (not word-processed) manuscript. For me, it’s a lo-tech, high-time poetry production.

Avid Diva is a single poem – 18 tercets on a half-dozen unnumbered pages, with each line having between three and five words – that serves up a riff on the muse or a related source of inspiration. Here are the first three lines:
avid diva, visit me
dispense divine advice
o radiant deviant
And right in these lines, right away, you can see, you can hear, what makes Avid Diva a particularly fun whirl-o-words, a hoot-‘n–holler of a read, and one that must have been a kick to write: its heavy use of words that include the letters of the poem’s palindromic title.

In particular, as the poem proceeds it’s the letter “v” that repeatedly rings. Yes, the letter “v.” I count 87 instances of that letter in the poems 54 lines, and there are only two lines in which the letter does not appear.

Now, other letters are as common, or far more frequently used, as “v” (look, for example, at all the “i’s” n the lines quoted above). But there’s something about the letter “v” that makes it pop, that perks up the eye and echoes hard in the inner ear. Here’s an example, a tercet from the poem’s second page, in which Caples describes some of what happens when the diva and/or “addictive desire” hits him hard:
my valves go viral
my values on vacation
my vultures counterclockwise
And here are another two tercets, from further along in the poem, in which Caples gets very particular with what he wants from the avid diva:
invade my ventilation
shaft and fill my vats
with quivering liquid

video my elvis selves
in silver levis swiveling
vote in my next erection
Crazy, yes? And a lot of that wildness comes from how the “v’s” dominate with their (borrowing here from Benjamin Paul Blood’s The Poetical Alphabet) vehemence and vigor, and then, secondarily, from how the mind starts looking for other letters (the “e’s,” for example, in the last tercet quoted above).

Caples has long played in sounds and echoes – see in particular the two page “Silence License” and the 17 page tour-de-force “Four Tune” in his most recent full-length collection, Complications (Meritage Press, 2007), and Avid Diva fits well in his on-going poetry-carnival.

The fun of Avid Diva, including its va-va-voom of “v” energy, brings to mind Johann Huizinga, and his 1938 book Homo Ludens.

Huizinga in Homo Ludens suggests that humans (he uses the now archaic “man”) are players as much as makers (Homo faber) and thinkers (Homo sapiens). “Play is older than culture,” he insists, and “the fun of playing resists all analysis, all logical interpretation.” He beautifully explains:
Play cannot be denied. You can deny, if you like, nearly all abstractions: justice, beauty, truth, goodness, mind, God. You can deny seriousness, but not play.
There’s a chapter in Homo Ludens titled “Play and Poetry” in which Huizinga convincingly asserts that poetry is a “play-function,” that it “proceeds within the play-ground of the mind.” In the chapter’s first paragraph, Huizinga comes right out with it, stating that poetry:
. . . lies beyond seriousness, on that more primitive and original level where the child, the animal, the savage and seer belong, in the region of drama, enchantment, ecstasy, laughter. To understand poetry we must be capable of donning the child’s soul like a magic cloak and of forsaking man’s wisdom for the child’s.
Goo-goo ga-ga, baby! Shake that rattle and pass the sippy-cup, I wanna read some poems! Poems such as Caples’ Avid Diva, in which the fun reigns supreme.

And now, as a stellar comedic troupe once put it, for something completely different:

Caples’ Quintessence of the Minor – Symbolist Poetry in English, just out from Wave Books, is an approximately 13,000 word essay, spread over 42 single-spaced pages. It concerns Caples’ love of certain minor poets, and includes a discussion of the necessity and value, particularly for poets, of grooving hard on those other than the widely acknowledged great achievers. He cops to a habit of pursuing the obscure, but also insists:
As a poet, I feel the need to see what else has been done, besides what everyone already knows. For a poet, I think finds much food for contemplation in the minor, imperfect, sometimes even the bad poet; you find things that have been attempted, that have failed or turned out ridiculous, but that yet seem like intriguing possibilities for further exploration, that might yield great poetry if handled differently or even simply more competently.
By far the bulk of pamphlet is taken up by Caples’ survey of Symbolist poetry (and some of its prose) in English, both British and American. Almost three dozen poets and writers are discussed, some briefly and others in a more extended manner. The latter, natch, include those that Caples finds the most interesting. Chief among these are Lionel Johnson (religious-mystic poems of “passionate sincerity” that show a “greater control of rhythm and lineation” than his contemporaries), Vincent O’Sullivan (“magnificent” prose weird tales), Francis Saltus (uneven but whose most striking works have “both a level and a type of imagination seldom met with in nineteenth century American poetry”), Adelaide Crapsey (inventor of the cinquain, “superior in imagination to the majority of symbolist poets in terms of sheer versification” who also impresses with her “attention to minute detail”) and Samuel Greenberg (“exalted enthusiasm” and “a profoundly poetic turn of mind”).

Johnson, O’Sullivan, Saltus, Crapsey, and Greenberg. Do you know them? Well, if you do, you’re a more experienced and exploring reader than I am. Of these five, only Greenberg is familiar to me, from a mini-rave on his poetry in a 1976 essay by Philip Lamantia.

Quintessence of the Minor is smart and well-written; regardless of whether the subject-poet gets a couple sentences or a couple pages, Caples’ discussions are careful, nuanced, personal, and opinionated (including saying when he finds certain poetry “boring and misguided”). This all – the exploring, the reading, the comparing and weighing, the writing and revising – must have taken him years. Here’s a combination of erudition and initiative, in the service of poetry, that’s edifying and fun.

As an example of what Caples’ does in his essay, consider his discussion of a particular sentence –
“It is thought that gives memory the charm of desire.”
– that he singles out from Samuel Greenberg’s short prose autobiography. His explication or appreciation just sings:
This . . . sentence in particular captivates me, though I have no
clear sense of what it means. Or rather, it seem like it could
mean a variety of things. Its hazy logical relationship between
“Thought” and “memory,” and its seeming tension between the
concepts of “charm” and “desire,” permit all manner of expla-
nation, none of which do it real justice. And yet it feels like a
perfect disposition of its four nouns, arrayed with epigrammat-
ic force. I imagine Greenberg had something definite in mind
here, but its compressed expression is the stuff of pure poetry . . . .
Quintessence of the Minor in this way vibrates with its author’s enthusiasms and curiosity. This thing’s contagious! When Caples says something interesting about a poet or work – and again there are a lot of names and specific titles mentioned – you’ll want – okay, it made me want – to check ‘em out. For this reason, a collection by Johnson, Crapsey’s Verse (1915), O’Sullivan’s prose tales, Saltus’s comic poems (written under the nom de plume Cupid Jones) and a few others are on their way as this is being posted. I’m looking forward to some fascinating poetry-and-prose reading, and have already re-read Greenberg here at home.

In short, Caples’ pamphlet, with a list price of five bucks, is a bargain, but once you read it you’ll likely find yourself spending a few or even many dollars more, either at the used book sites or for gas or bus fare to and from the library. So caveat emptor, and have at it!


Garrett Caples



Anonymous said...

do you have a mailing address which review copies of books may be mailed to?

Steven Fama said...

Howdy Anonymous,

I generally prefer to buy poetry, but I'd be happy to give an address to which publications can be mailed -- please send a note directly to me:

stevenfama AT comcast DOT net

(substituting in there, of course, the appropriate symbols, and also eliminating the spaces between symbols and words per standard e-mail protocol.

And thanks for stopping in!

EILEEN said...

Yup. Quintessence... is wonderful thinking indeed,


O.A. Tatlock said...

Very nice post!

I think you hit on the crucial link between the two publications in your discussion of the "v" in "Avid Diva." I had a chance to hear Mr. Caples read that poem at Moe's a few months ago and he happened to mention to me that he was inspired by symbolist poet Ernest Downson's assertion that "v" was the most poetic letter of the alphabet and that his ideal line of poetry was Poe's "The viol, the violet, and the vine."

Those Lew Gallery editions are indeed typed (then photocopied) by Sunnylyn Thibodeaux & Micah Ballard, who usually work under the Auguste Press banner.

O.A. Tatlock

Steven Fama said...

Dear O.A.,

Thanks much for the comment, in particular for the info connecting the "v" to the symbolist Dowson, per Caples' himself.