his first full length collection, Rod Smith mixes his modes, switching
often at lightning speed from the wryly intimate to the linguistically
playful, from the humorous to the "abstract." If the latter
mode seems dominant here at a cursory glance, then I fear In Memory
of My Theories might be too easily labeled "second generation
Language Poetry." That would be too bad for Smith's best
work interestingly resists the generic confines of that territory. While
it frequently makes use of what seems a hard core "language"
style ("unfold stem of contraction sift, as at the top and the
bottom of"), what may be more easily overlooked is that this mode
is adulterated from the very start with a tone reminiscent of Frank
O'Hara's "personal" poems ("Lee Ann says 'Oh Rod, you're
so dire'/ She's not documenting any conquests/ but it doesn't originate
in a brochure").
no accident then that the title of the book is a play on the title of
O'Hara's "In Memory of My Feelings." Smith's book ironizes
O'Haraesque idealism, while being a little mistrustfully nostalgic,
one thinks, for the artistic "grace" which such idealism seemed
to allow the poet. ("The degree of mistrust/ magnifies the measure
of abstraction./ The lightning is an exaggeration of the light.")
to O'Hara is also apt in the sense of O'Hara's association with so called
"personal" poetry, a term he coined. In Smith's relaxed version
of personism& in contrast to what O'Hara claimed for his own
work the poet seems to want the writing to be BOTH between two
persons and two pages. If Smith does not allow the reader to forget
that the poem is made of words, neither does he entirely allow us to
forget that it is a particular person who made it ("Words// have//
an/ ancestor"). Where there is an "I" in Smith's poetry,
it is not an Eliotic mask, much less the "detached" I familiar
to readers of, for example, Michael Palmer or Ron Silliman ("Why
does Ron Silliman hate Shakespeare"). If Smith's "I"
is not always exactly "Rod Smith" either, a poetics of gesture
lurks, sometimes awkwardly, beneath some of Smith's most austere constructs
("Plants/ to have been/ melancholic/ pavement.")
posits a "cranial/ cynicism which/ creased in mince is need."
If we do not readily notice that he here equates an intellectualism
("cranial/ cynicism") with "need" or feeling, it
is in part because his L=A=N=G U=A=G=E like flourishes distract our
attention from the grammatical function of the statement. Yet it is
also because of the "opposition" of intellect to feeling-
what Eliot called the dissociation of sensibility- yet so far ingrained
as to constitute a received, & therefore suspect, formula. Smith's
work trashes the impasse between Theory and Feeling, by readmitting
a razor quick playfulness into poetic diction ("Gun profit.
Gun nug. Gun lung. Hung grug. Gun from. Gun Moynihan.")
a poetic refuses the split between intellect and feeling, it also participates
in the postlanguage reexamination of theory in the wake of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E
moment. The title of Smith's book is a joke much as the title
of O'Hara's poem was ironic; for how can one lose one's theories. Furthermore,
we hardly imagine Smith as a theorist; any pretense otherwise seems
to be blown apart by the title of just one short poem here, "Bad
Ashbery But Fun." Yet the dissociation of sensibility, in this
case, between "Theories" and "Fun" is immediately
problematized by the poem itself:
A little civil thinking everyday. A little awareness.
(like a charming president) you can say
What you like
about america but
what you like.
to go home
Turn the sprinkler on
and lay down in the mud.
A non accident
you'll be found not guilty of:
a musical event miss taken for a lyric kingdom
the distant air enters
through distant lungs
opening line this poem posits (enacts) a poiesis of intellect conjoined
to the "everyday", the public & private as a complex exchange
("A little civil thinking"), rather than simply in opposition.
In Smith's collapse of the public/private dichotomy, the anarchic replaces
an implied socialism of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets as a political means,
less of critique, than of uniting theory to practice. In the counter
utopian world of this poem, the "charming president" is equated
with the speaker, comically announcing his freedom to "go home/
Turn the sprinkler on// and lay down in the mud." (The "freedom"
announced is also comic/ineffectual because of its limits: one is "free"
to do what one pleases, so long as what one pleases does not threaten
the reproduction of the economic & political order). Here, the ends
of inquiry are gently torqued into the numinous. The "you"
is found less culpable for an outcome than "not guilty" of
"a non accident," because, finally, the inhering structures
of power have become irrelevant: what at first appeared "a lyric
kingdom" turns out, happily, to be only "a musical event."
It is in this actuated state of "musical event" where the
"Bad Ashbery" is found to be of some value ("Fun"?),
after all. Smith's apparent anarchism sidesteps canonical sanctity &
stigmas about "imitation," even as it ignores tidy poetic
prescriptions. Rather than rejecting the "opacity" of the
L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E moment out of hand, Smith adapts its poetic vehicle
to his own needs, achieving a quirky balance between Zukofskyan lower
& upper limits. Rod Smith's poetics of "Theories" moderated
by "Feelings" freshens the space between reader & poem,
making us think (again)- if only for an instant- about the meanings
of that complex exchange.