“and that is the time to read poetry,
when we are almost able to write it.”
-- Virginia Woolf, “How Should One Read a Book”
The Second Common Reader
e. e. cummings’ influence was reduced, at one time, to an awful lot of scatter-lined, under-punctuated poetry, dotted with i’s. Strong, distinctive writers can, paradoxically, have a pernicious effect. Superficial aspects of their stylistic innovations become epidemic in imitations by the weak.
I cringe to think of aspiring writers skimming off what stands out from Mark Rudman’s work, thinking they can do what he does.
Rudman is easy to read; he should not be read easily.
What astonishes about Rudman’s work is its layered construction. It’s impossible not to imagine readers who will stroll through his books thinking, “Oh, I can do that.”
But already the poet, as my own internal interlocutor, interrupts, (his voices have a way of insinuating themselves into your mind and setting up shop there) objecting. “Cautionary words drive me up the wall.” And the Rider, the recurring counterpoint in Rudman’s own internal dialogues begun in the book of that name, adds, sagely invoking Bloom (the other Bloom), “Have you forgotten that error and misprision are our allies?” (Provoked in Venice, “Revolt” p. 18)
Rudman wears his craft effortlessly. He is not what would generally be considered a “formalist” – but his poetry is a far cry from formless. He makes continual use of sui generis poetic structures, from the base of the internal interlocutor to which he continually returns, to well-regulated if irregular couplets, to the deeply-thought re-creations of the poetry of Horace, among others, which he transforms into commentaries on his own preoccupations by transposing them into contemporary American language and referents.
At times Rudman does use words to arrest the flow of his texts; intermittently phrases do ask the reader to linger, calling attention to the poetic moment and saying, “Verweile, doch, du bist so schön.” The opening poem, “Nowhere Water,” of his newest book, Sundays On The Phone, casts just such an arresting spell with lines which are made that much more luminous by the plainness of those surrounding them, among which they are both consonant and conspicuous:
We ate alone in the immense dining room. “ate”
She got me to eat each night
by saying any meat was buffalo meat.
The desert had the silence of one who waits.
Cool water, clear water – she sang.
Her voice soothed my deepest blood
[. . .]
My one friend lived in a trailer in a dust bowl.
I’d wander off alone and once
got far enough away to where
the bleaching neon of the strip
dwindled to tinsel.
For the greater part, the pace of Rudman’s language runs fluently as thought or speech, since his manner – both in its effect and its affect – is miraculously natural: “normalissimo.”
“Normalissimo” is the concept of the ordinary as broached in Provoked in Venice – and as first clashed against when the author was a child (Provoked In Venice, “Normalissimo,” 3, pp. 4-7):
My father dragged me to Florida as a child
where I was appalled to see miles
of bodies, slathered with Coppertone,
spread out on chaise lounges.
[. . .]
He stumbles against it again decades later when himself a father looking for a snack for his own son. He’s given the epitomizing word on another beach,
over Ostia’s black sand
asking a girl’s mother about the chips she’s eating and being told they
were “normalissimo,” wielding the word
with an emphasis that made us all
angry, and suspicious, because her tone
was so damn condescending.
[. . .]
The word – and the way she said it –
preyed on our minds,
like an ominous sign, or an emblem
of a value system out of science
fiction, legitimizing this obscene
blind, sweeping “normalissimo.”
[. . .]
There was still something mysterious
about this clannishness, this clinging to
Coppertone and Delicatessen
The theme weaves through many poems as something both invidious and magnetic: the search for the “normalissimo,” the analysis of it, the experience of it in forms from chips to love. Rudman’s ambivalence toward the normal – the shared – is that of a wanderer, a stranger seeking both to fit in and to be extraordinary.
This is a poet who works with “normal” language, yet with a few masterstrokes he might charge it with the weight of sacred histories. (Watch for glancing blows that show him to be shadow-boxing with giants such as Eliot.) Using an everyday mode, Rudman goes beyond what used to be the domain of stream-of-consciousness and somehow seems to lift off the top of his skull so that the reader is listening in on the things going around and around in his head.
Now it’s really Sunday. The day began at 3am
with a tropical rain storm, a hail of spears and arrows.
[. . .]
Who can I complain to now who won’t say
“Everyone feels that way”?
“You don’t understand,” I want to say [. . .]
It’s impossible not to think of the would-be writers who might imagine, misreading Rudman’s books, that all they have to do is transcribe the endless conversations in their brains; those who will see poetry as auto-therapy; those who will think all they have to do is throw together an olla podrida of undigested memories, a bit of pop culture, maybe a myth, a few undisciplined ideas and unattached observations; a new generation who might feel licensed to write down whatever they are thinking about.
But the original poetry, Rudman’s, hiding behind the unassuming, as-he-is exterior, is at work on a vastly more imaginative, intellectually precise and aesthetically provocative project.
To my friend the young poet, I speak in this way: you don’t really have any norm now, and must give it to yourselves; only ask yourself in every poem whether it contains something lived, and has this experience challenged you? You’re not challenged when, because of separation, faithlessness or death, you keep mourning a beloved. That’s not worth anything, no matter how much skill and talent you dedicate to it.
One seizes ongoing life, and tests oneself when possible; because whether we are alive shows itself in an instant, and on later perspective, whether we were alive.
-- Goethe “Another Work for Young Poets” 
Every writer of “something” lived and not just of discrete observations, of culture and not just psychology, of ideas and not just emotions, must answer in every piece why he or she is choosing poetry and not essay, memoir, journal or prose fiction. A writer like Mark Rudman, who explores so much that his five recent, related books are close to novels built on interlocking short stories, and who uses the vernacular rather than any ostentatiously apart language, has especially to answer: why are these books poetry.
The reply in the texts could not be clearer: only poetry could contain the mess and complexity, the challenge of the most intensely alive experience. However much room for knotty ambiguity may be left in any other form of writing, prose must untangle, must follow threads of argument, of narrative, of character or time; poetry alone allows the living tangles to wriggle, pull, become lost, resurface, and tug again.
“There is the one moment whose purity brings on / a kind of ecstasy,” (Provoked In Venice, “The Assassins” p.39) a moment, a wave of exaltation towards which Rudman’s work is always to pull – against the tide of the ordinary. In “Jury Duty” (The Millennium Hotel, p.53) the one pulls against the other to create a moment of stasis, a knot of lived experience:
Walking here last May on my lunch break from the law
the light hit the time-darkened, turbulent stones
with such tender, fierce, erotic force,
a match struck in a cave
I ground to a halt.
[. . .]
and would have lingered
had not my citizen-reminder-beeper begun
its this is not the time, this is not the place
routine, as if this confluence could happen any day,
and our species were not endangered by the daily
catastrophe of delay…,
and allowed myself to wonder
if when I am no longer around
to walk these underestimated streets
the world would be worse off
without me here to love it.
No wonder Rudman, whose essay “On the Road, Touch and Go, with D.H. Lawrence” (American Poetry add: ital here, Review, col. 34 / no. 4 / July/August 2005) follows – untangles – several of the threads that run through all his poetry, is so moved by the Etruscans! – “(we hope the exclamation point is Laurentian!)” (Sundays On The Phone, “Sons and Lovers Recovered!” p. 23). To stand before their remains, their dance-ringed sarcophagi, is to vibrate with their cries – not of “Remember me!” or even, “I was alive!” but, “I am life!”
“Lawrence’s attraction to the Etruscans,” Rudman might have written of himself,
Has an instinctive quality, as if he were beguiled by his unconscious – or the gods – to a world where death is part of a passage, an active force that is consonant with the value of living in the moment, where the moment is everything because in reality existence offers nothing more. This is exemplified by the dance. And what does this dance do if not kindle the quick, electrical connection between people. It is time to study the ways in which people come alive. I wish it would be possible to see what the energy itself looked like between people who are attracted to each other, like those white lines on some of Tinteretto’s paintings that were visible during the time of day when the painting wasn’t meant to be seen.
“You’re conflating ancient Italy and modern America,” the Rider scolds near the beginning of Sundays On The Phone. We are not Etruscans; nor can we always be dancing. The world and the lived experiences that Mark Rudman’s poetry attempts to contain – I purposely do not say describe or represent – is American, in the present. The poet writes with the language he lives with.
Must poetry always be so beautiful? Must there be music in the language, whatever the content?
Less and less so in the generations since men like Siegfried Sassoon began penning lines like
You’re quiet and peaceful, summering safe at home;
You’d never think there was a bloody war on! …
O yes, you would . . . why you can’t hear the guns.
Hark! Thud, thud, thud, - quite soft . . . they never cease –
Those whispering guns – O Christ, I want to go out
And scream at them to stop – I’m going crazy;
I’m going stark, staring mad because of the guns.
(“Repression of War Experience”)
If by beauty we mean what is lovely and pleasing, words bathed in symmetry and honey, words to linger over and roll on the tongue, then beauty is no longer the wife of poetry.
Most of the World War I poets were still rhyming, and in the face of unspeakable horrors, writers like Wilfred Owen still fashioned such lines of heart-wrenching eloquence as
Happy are these who lose imagination:
They have enough to carry with ammunition.”
The increasing disjunction between diction and experience broke down the marriage. Beauty will always have to meet poetry at family functions and holidays; they may begin by scowling sullenly across the table, then after a few drinks begin the old flirtation, and, inevitably, end up in bed together again. Whether they wake up in the same bed is another question. The marriage is over.
Per Contra: The International Journal of the Arts, Literature and Ideas