from Frontenac House

from Frontenac House

It’s not hard to place Lisa Pasold’s Any Bright Horse within certain prevalent trends in recent poetry. The book props up bits of linearity, then lightly abandons them and convolutes them with one another. In the same way it tries on verse shapes and forms. That latter trait is possible because Pasold’s forms denote more a way of thinking, or a mode of speaking, than they do any significant musical ramification.

This would suggest Any Bright Horse furthers the larger project of exposing the basic arbitrariness of poetic convention. In a formal sense, this is true. Poets have long since abandoned the assumption that this form should be expected to lead to this musical or otherwise formal effect. Although that can certainly still be the case, the action of the line now very often occurs on the level of the sentence, with the line and the line break seeming to matter sometimes, and sometimes not. Pasold supports that theory. Take these lines from A Bad Year for Journalists:

she says his mission

is to keep her drunk, it’s a pact for these events. too sober

and she’ll end up clocking

the minister. not to say it wouldn’t be deserved, but a brawl’s just

too much work in high heels.

It’s difficult to locate the precise function of the line breaks here. The exception might be “just,” which highlights a double meaning—justice and unimportance—but even there, what’s the musical effect? The language doesn’t pack enough sonic punch to distract you from the seeming randomness of the lineation. Form, in this case, is not a given constraint, but just whatever you make of it.

Tony Hoagland

In “The Fear of Narrative and the Skittery Poem of Our Moment,” Tony Hoagland points out that among young poets today, “systematic development is out; obliquity, fracture, and discontinuity are in.” Pasold’s prosody would line up with that. But in her dealings with narrative, Pasold plays with but ultimately outruns the instinct to escape convention.

Hoagland’s essay focuses on the “intention to hold narrative up for our inspection, at arm’s length, without being caught inside its sticky web.” In the passage quoted above Pasold’s telling a disjointed but meaningful story, but in Any Bright Horse she’s bearing Hoagland out. Yet even while she tosses narrative around like a foam ball she’s revealing its vital importance. It’s as if you’re watching the poet fight her inclination to scramble meaning, but all she can do is mess with line breaks as her various disjointed narratives heal together like some cross-century Frankenstein’s monster of a tale that refuses to evade the narrative poem’s ancient prerogative.

I think we’re always of two minds: longing for and running from convention. Most of the poems covered in Hoagland’s essay express this in the opposite way of Pasold: they evade straight-ahead narrative, but retain attention to sound and lyricism. In either case, to borrow Hoagland’s opening metaphor, we’re simply tilling one field while we let the other lay fallow and regenerate (because one day we will return to cultivate it).

It is common to say we live in an “unsettled” world, and I use the term in my Puritan XXI review of Any Bright Horse. But however detached from convention we long to become, the future promises more of the same.

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