Expansive Poetry & Music Online Review


Earthrise (2000)
72 pp.

review by Arthur Mortensen

The longest-running debate about art, with critical origins in Plato, pursues the topic: "Should poetry teach or should poetry be an art for its own sake?"   Auden's often-cited opinion was that poetry never makes anything happen, a view as extreme as Shelley's that poets are the world's legislators.   Both are so extreme that one doubts either Auden or Shelley believed in them, a view amply illustrated by Auden's ongoing concerns with the world-as-it-is and Shelley's more than evident concentration on high art.   The debate rumbled on through the post-World War II and Cold War era, with poets taking extreme positions about themselves and the role of poetry (theirs or someone else's).   The dominant position since the late 50's is a narrowly didactic one, that the business of poetry is the sincerest possible revelation of the poet's own experience, thought and action.   And in this, sincerity is measured by the absence of craft, as if the window to passion could only be opened by breaking it.  And its apostles, whether Ginsberg  or Bly, Rich or Plath, and all the disciples since, have designated contrary points of view (and accompanying work) as elitist, Ivory Tower, academic formalist, or Eurocentric.   But one wonders about the designations.

For instance, Auden's "art for art's sake" proclamation masks his own work.   Few poets in the last century attained the prosodic mastery of Auden, but what is "September 1, 1939" but a didactic poem against neutrality in Europe?   Or the sequence "Horae Canonica..." in The Shield of Achilles  -- this story of a secular sacrifice, written just after the Second World War, with its fearsome meditation on the ordinariness of murderous practices in urban society, is made more visible by Auden's art and reference.  Its plain surface gives way on subsequent readings to disturbing resonances with the founding story of Christian society.   Or what about Robert Bly's extreme, even nonsensical, metaphors?  Are they to forward an agenda to bring down the orderly tyranny he perceives as running our lives?  Or are they in some part designed to dazzle us with their art?

In looking at Frederick Glaysher's book, this little introduction is required.  Glaysher's intention, strongly expressed in his own introduction, is to turn away from the didacticism of the self or, as he puts it:  "Poets must turn to viewing and contemplating the real world, where men butcher and kill, love and hate, aspire and sometimes achieve."   Well, yes, self-absorption, which can take more than the form of confessional poetry, can steer a writer into empty lyrics.  Worse, it can lead to remarkable skewing of perspective, where trivialities are held as equal to tragedies.   Not unique in poetry, it troubles and undermines American institutions in education and politics, where the strength of personal grudges and feelings is often held as proof to justify political prejudices and actions that have no basis in the real world.   The ultimate cost for institutions is their popular debasement as engines for liars and con artists.  And the ultimate cost for poetry is that the work may become popularly regarded as a bauble for neurotics to play with.

But if you're going to look at that real world, whether as a new Auden, Frost, or whoever your mentor-in-spirit might be, if it is to be as a poet, can you afford to ignore the art that such poets used to convey what they saw?   If you ignore the art, the result may be suggestions for poems which, expressed without art, sound like poems of wishful thinking one so often hears in poetry society readings.   In those, instead of showing a horror and revealing its resonance with something else, one talks about it in the right tone of voice, as "isn't it awful about poverty in southern Africa?"   To be blunt, eight years of feel-your-pain posturings by politicians about that subject have not saved a child nor illuminated the danger of a whole continent suffering from neglect and civil war.    The results of either political speeches or poems of "superior moral stance" is most often a grand nodding of heads, with an evident confidence that the expression of pain is sufficient for our deliverance from it.

Too often this is the risk taken by Glaysher.  The result is poems, particularly in the first section,  that resemble what were once described as "arguments,", descriptions of what is to come.   It is a fine start, as in "Midnight Visitors," to talk about "...a Cambodian//next to a neatly stacked pile of skulls,//a Jew staring from a crack in a boxcar," but a lyric is not enough when you introduce images of two of the gravest human horrors of the last century.   To be fair, one may take these poems as a sequence.  Certainly the first poem (though cats do not growl; they hiss!), is a lead-in to a series of poems on "...the creatures/of the night...visions of horror...."   But, as the pieces are introduced, with references to South Africa, refugees from Southeast Asia, the Gulag, the wartime internment camps for Japanese in America, the disaster of the Great Leap Forward in China, and violence in America, the compression is so great that any sense of horror in the text is eschewed in favor of the connotations names have for survivors.   As Don Murray demonstrates time and again in both his moving prose columns about aging and in his free verse poems about war and personal tragedies, you can't walk away from details, not today.  The one world that Glaysher believes in, and that is surely coming about, at least in such networks as transportation, trade, and the Internet, is not a unification of humanity into one type and experience.  If anything, precisely the opposite is true.  The universality of the Romantics has given away to the cacophony of six billion competing voices.   If we're to be expected to pay attention, we'd better have more than summary expression of a given life or experience or that "look at the real world" will be little more than cocktail conversation.   Fortunately, as will be discussed later on, Glaysher escapes this eventually, but not in the first series of poems.

It might be worth looking at another writer who looks at similar material. The success of Primo Levi's harrowing stories about Auschwitz stems directly from his refusal to ignore the persons in them.  They leap into life in his prose. We know them and, as we do, their fate is personally horrifying, almost as if an aunt or a brother had gone to death.  And how can a writer ignore that "personless" horror is precisely what torturers and concentration camp guards intended -- a litany of statistics which serve as much as a memory of the success of their ghastly work as anything else.  We need to know who Isaac Berlinsky was before we can weep for his murder, and, more importantly, before we can gather courage against a murderer of someone we know.

What we get instead of an identity outside of the author is how the author felt about what he saw.

    "I lie in bed looking into the dark
     and see nothing but the vaguest fancies
     mankind has ever dreamt.

     Somewhere behind a broken wall
     something begins to move...."
           from "Into the Ruins, I"

That's as close as we get; the rest of the poem is television imagery, or the view of a neutral passerby who knows nobody who's bleeding out there.

    "Seen through smoke,
      past five-month-old rotting bodies,
     Muslim militiamen brandish from a jeep

     jawless Christian skulls on cudgels...."
           from "Into the Ruins, V"

It's tight, well-written prose, but nothing one hasn't heard  in a report by Dan Rather.   Fiction, in poetry or in prose, doesn't work until we know who the Muslim militiamen were and who the Christian skulls belonged to.

Not that Glaysher isn't trying hard.   Often, as in "Rodin's Gates of Hell," he contrasts one reality with another, a park in Tokyo in the exuberant bloom of cherry blossoms with "a closed country//terrifying image of Japan, of France//of the United States and all the West,//whose multitudes in distracted turmoil//writhe in the searing inferno//of passion..."  So, where is the searing inferno of passion to be found in this poem?  It isn't, except in connotation and vague reference.    In Don Murray, the madness of war, practically a cliche, is given startling new life when he shows an American paratrooper's midnight rendezvous with a German during the Battle of the Bulge.  The two men blaze away at each other in the moonlight, both missing.  Both of them laugh at their exercise is bad markmanship.  Both disappear unhurt into the night.  The next day, the narrator sees the same German by the side of the road with the back of his head blown off.   A brief moment of humanity followed by a searing reminder of the war -- Murray puts us as close as words can do.   And while he doesn't use metrical prosody (neither does Glaysher), there is art in this and other poems; it's in the details he puts in and those he leaves out; and it's in the persons who give them life.

It's not that Glaysher can't write well.  He does and consistently.  His passion for revelation is evident.   It's that the poems rarely take off into the territory he sets out for us.   Just where detail and person and sense should enter, the poem ends, leaving to us the job of filling in.   That's fine when details are trivial, as the color of the fabric in curtains, or of a shade of lipstick; a good poet will often leave to the reader such things, as much a sign of trust as of compression.   However, there are times when Glaysher fulfills the promise.

His "To the New City" letter from Augustine to Paulinus changes the point of view from the author's to a character in a poem.  We find more than a litany of crimes against Rome by barbarians.   Augustine has a fever, is perplexed by the Vandals cutting down olive trees, and is trying mightily to conflate Christian doctrine with the horrors of the occupation.   This poem stands out sharply from all of those preceding it.   Why?  It utilizes the art of the dramatic monologue.

The same is true of "The Crowned Maitreya," given life by persons and what they do and may feel, from the monks at morning prayer, to the old man performing a ritual cleaning, to an old attendant watching from his post who...

    "...shambles to the altar, rings a graceful
      bell three times, offers a prayer
      that we all acknowledge with a bow."

Even though the author clearly doesn't know these persons, they live in the poem.  And one found one's self wishing that the book had started with these pieces.   "Leader of the People" is another.  Because it's set in another voice, even though the sentiments expressed by he or she aren't particularly fresh, it gains power as a dramatic monologue spoken by someone else.   The apparently transparent crudity of the speaker in "Chairman of the Board" is wonderfully undercut by his own contradictions.  He wavers between prejudices he was born to and practical realities.  He's obviously a real politician, walking the tightrope between promise and what's possible, between what he wishes were so and what is.

An old convention is a conversation between historical persons, one that Glaysher exploits to good effect in "A Conversation at the Forum."   A nice aspect of such a convention is that you can express contemporary opinion through a long-dead voice.   It is useful and appropriate to match your historical voice well with what you wish to say.   The satirist Juvenal and the Stoic Persius serve Glaysher well.  And since they're dead, they can talk about people who weren't born for centuries after they lived.

   Juvenal:  "...they strut and bleat to the acclamation
      of their epigones.  For anointed
      dullness they outrank even Shadwell
      and Cibber.  Damn, what drivel.
  Persius: "I too have thought and said as much.
     The verse in vogue is smooth and equal,
     befitting those who have their eye more
     on their career than on the thing itself.
     Doggerel stuff.  Were any manly
     virtue left in Rome, no one would
     tolerate such servile versifiers....


Juvenal:  "...when society is raped of all moral standards,
   can neither convincingly refute
   the anti-values of common thugs or dictators,
   but worships money above all else,
   and breeds a facile mentality evidenced alike
   by crooks, lawyers, and lying emperors;
   while gambling becomes a national pasttime
   used to finance what passes for education,
   and our wise forefathers are forgotten,
   then it's hard to write, but harder to forbear,
   to view so base a world....

The way such pieces work is naked.  No one's fooling anybody, but if it's done cleverly, with just enough reference to the actual time and lives of the players, it creates opportunities for invention that don't exist in an author's monologue on the world's sins.   This particular one would have been stronger if the Persius character had been less of a foil to Juvenal, if their views had been conflicting instead of in relative agreement.  Nonetheless, it's pretty good, as is "The Looking-Glass," a dialogue of the Poet and his Self.   The latter would have worked better with a little humor, however.   The target of many Expansive Poets is the silliness of presumption in confessional poetry, the imaginative (and usually deluded)  leap that turns a trivial event into a tragedy.   Mocking is probably a better approach.   Sadly, there are very few who do this.

Part IV has a variety of poems about specific persons which mark a falling back in the book.   They tend toward being small lyrics of praise which need rich detail of each given person's impact on the author's and on our lives to be of real value.    Part V is a series of short lyrics on a variety of subjects.   "Kagi" is a strong vignette about a friendly encounter with a mother and child in Tokyo.   "Basic Training" is an affecting short narrative about a child's discovery of the aftermath of war, as is "A Visit to Aunt Amy's."

This is a mixed collection.   For the many reservations, one still hopes that with his evident passions and craft, Glaysher will go much further in exploring the very real horrors and joys of our time and of others.    Earthrise is to be commended for bringing out a book about something other than an author's reflections in the mirror.

        Arthur Mortensen

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