One aspect of my philistinism is a lack of rapport with poetry. (Apart, I suppose, from an increasingly temperamental and tonsorial inclination toward Philip Larkin.) I mostly don’t get it.
So I was surprised to like very much Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner. It’s the story of a young man struggling to write poetry in Madrid. I know, I know, if that’s how you pitched it to me, you’d have to snap fingers to regain my attention. But it’s full of astute perceptions about art, language, and… whatever, this is not a book review.* My point is, as I read it, I kept thinking:
This Is Spinal Tap : Rock : : Leaving the Atocha Station : Poetry
Here’s how the protagonist writes verse:
I opened the Lorca more or less at random, transcribed the English recto onto a page of my first notebook, and began to make changes, replacing a word with whatever word I first associated with it and/or scrambling the order of the lines, and then I made whatever changes these changes suggested to me. Or I looked up the Spanish word for the English word I wanted to replace, and then replaced that word with an English word that approximated its sound (“Under the ark of the sky” became “Under the arc of the cielo,” which became “Under the arc of the cello”).
Tufnelesque, no? And consider this depiction of his conversational skills:
He said that he had recently been to New York or that he was going to New York soon. For what, I asked. He answered for a musical performance, or to perform music, or for some sort of performance art.
Reminiscent of this exchange, yes?
And when, at a reading, he’s asked which Spanish poets have influenced him? It’s like a Mach piece, really:
Finally I thought of two famous poets I’d barely read… but the names collided and recombined in my head, and I heard myself say: “Ramón Machado Jiménez, which was as absurd as saying “Whitman Dickinson Walt,” and a few people tittered. I corrected myself, but it came out wrong again… and now those who were baffled understood my unforgivable error, so extreme they might have at first suspected it was an ironic gesture.
But hey, enough of my yakkin’…
*I’d call it a comic novel, but in my experience that term is up there with “light refreshments” for reliably predicting disappointment. I will say that the first ten pages are up there with Day of the Jackal for strong starts. Also, blessed are the sub-two hundred page novels.