It Is in What the Poem Does:
On The Poetry of Ben Mazer

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Poemsby Ben MazerSoftcover, $13.95Pen & Anvil Press2010

by Ben Mazer
Softcover, $13.95
Pen & Anvil Press

“The poem does an undoglike thing: it purrs.” —Christopher Ricks

Even though I made Ben Mazer’s acquaintance only recently (we met at a conference in Claremont this March), in reading his verse I experienced a familiarity that, at first, was difficult to acknowledge. Usually, it is difficult to remember what one thought of a poet upon a first reading of their work. That is, of course, unless you are facing a poet — a poem, even a single line perhaps? — that is truly memorable. When one reads Mazer’s verse for the first time, a very pedestrian thing becomes clear, a thing that determines the future of any individual in the world of business, for better or for worse: the relevance of a first impression. Do not misunderstand me — there is very little, if anything indeed, that could be called “business-like” in Ben Mazer’s poetry. His is not the poetry of mandatory attention, but that of necessary response. His only business has to do with the force of a first encounter. And Mazer, through his writing, makes sure every reading, every convergence between the eye of a reader and the line of a poem, is determined by the joy — or the grief — of a momentous encounter. Congratulations, Mr. Mazer, you have been hired as one of the representatives of memorability in contemporary American poetry.

Welcoming Mazer into the superstructure of a hemispheric tradition of poetry may sound grand, given the confession of my brief, yet exhilarating, relationship with the poet and his verse. Nevertheless, my authoritative tone here rests upon a purely textual exchange of impressions. To my knowledge, I am the first individual who has attempted to translate Mazer’s economical yet intricate poetry into Spanish. And I am confident enough to say that in Latin America, the tortuousness of a line, or of a single image evoked by the peculiar juxtaposition of words, signals the inevitable memorability of something that, for Octavio Paz, dwelled in “the house of presence.” That something is an unavoidable sense of emotional recognition: not only the recognition of one’s self in Mazer’s strict lines and voluptuous images, but also the acknowledgement, not of the language that spawns poetry, but of the poetry that gives birth to its own language. This recognition of language creation characterises the best contemporary poetry of America (in the continental sense) in the manner that Paz, Neruda, Lowell, and Williams individually conceived it: as being self-contained, self-explanatory, and perhaps more importantly, self-responsive. Ben Mazer’s poetry exemplifies and undeniably partakes in such notions.

Mazer’s work twists the American canon, so that its evocations soon turn into unique rhythmic and prosodic units of impression, and not necessarily units of meaning. While there is an undeniable “aesthetic unity” in Mazer’s poetry, as Christopher Bock recently wrote in an enlightening essay at Jacket, [1] the musicality that holds its themes and approaches to the sensorial world together also produces a multi-layered poetical structure, reminiscent of the best of Robert Frost. I will not attempt here to delve into Mazer’s longer poems, which are, on the other hand, worthwhile examining if we are to believe Pound’s — and, I suspect, Mazer’s — notion that that the true range of a poet can only be shown in a long poem. Rather, I will try to explain Mazer’s a sense of the poetical that lies not necessarily in musicality, imagery, or physical evocation, but in the attention that the poet pays to the uncommon, playful use of language. Language, for Mazer, is not the means to poetry, but the true aim of the poetical process itself.

Let us consider, to begin, “Elegy in a Windy Rain,” a piece found in Mazer’s brief volume Poems (2010). The first stanza, if it can be called a stanza, presents us with the rough tracks followed by the mind of a lover whose grim vision of the beloved verges on the sublime, even in the 18th-century sense of the word:

Obviously your no means yes,
as in no babies,
no text messages,
no trip to Gloucester.
I am always with you
in the graveyard,
where a wind like white stone
carries the feeling of you to me,
through me.
Nothing else matters.
I sit here, day after day,
following these same shadows
deeper into winter,
your refusals.

The poetic potentiality of these lines does not depend entirely on their evocative prowess, by the concatenation of the imagined impossibilities expressed in “no babies / no text messages, / no trip to Gloucester.” It lies rather in the negation of commonplace speech (as in the opening line, “Obviously your no means yes”) by means of the quasi-imperceptible rhetorical culminations that lurk in almost every turn of phrase and line. It is only “in the graveyard” that “I am with you,” and it is only while the wind is like white stone that a feeling (“the feeling of you to me”) becomes a certainty, an object of absolute perception. In these lines, the boundaries drawn by rhetoric, between a simile and a metaphor, between commonplace and vivid evocation, are blurred through objectification. “Your refusals,” then, are the unavoidable conclusion, the necessary culmination, of this winding unity of rhetorical contention.

The poetic method that I propose Mazer has followed here seems, as I have put it, extremely orderly, even methodical. I do not suggest, however, that by following such processes Mazer’s lines become predictable. Quite the contrary. It is in this sense that Mazer’s poetry stands out amidst the assumed irregularities of contemporary verse in America. Mazer proceeds through the unpredictability of his rhetorical solutions to these evocative entanglements. Here, I must turn to Pound. When Pound speaks of form in literature in general, and poetry in particular, he proposes that, to language in this context, there is “a ‘fluid’ as well as ‘solid’ content, that some poems may have a form as a tree has form, some as water poured into a vase. That most symmetrical forms have certain uses. That a vast number of subjects cannot be precisely, and therefore not properly rendered in symmetrical forms.” [2] It is in this sense, not solely in its attention to measure and metre, that Mazer’s poetry acquires its true formality.

If we look into a more metrically-oriented piece, a sonnet, this property of Mazer’s poetical procedure will become even more apparent. In the following poem, Mazer explores the quintessential subject of romanticism: dejection.

My winter’s sadness is no ice to break
upon steel trellises, slabs of concrete,
but inwards breaks upon me for my sake
enlifting and encumbering defeat.
I listen for the lighting of the lamps
and enter promptly on the outer ramps
with its view within. I am no one to go
to where the convalescent’s cure is slow
but drop instead into the fallow fleet
reductive hollow where memories repeat.
The simple table rests upon and stamps
the cautious carpet where I hope to take
my will and testament out to the tramps
who sit and fish through ice-holes on the lake.

The nature of the dejection probed in this sonnet is an uncommon mixture of dramatic self-awareness, which can only be called Shakespearian (the winter of one’s discontent is here a more than solid expression of latent sadness) and the chilling, yet revelatory, loneliness of Wallace Stevens’ “The Snowman.” Yet, it is something else. Even as it strips its language of any explainable meanings and substitutes them for meaningful rhetorical valences, the poem functions as more than an instance of poetic form.

“I listen for the lighting of the lamps,” for example, transcends the (il)logical sensorial correspondence of synaesthesia when the surprising line announces a view that can only be had within; i.e., in a place where, simply, no view can be experienced. In this sense, the view of the speaker can only be evoked by means of a negative poetical valence. The poem becomes the object of its own visual subjectivity. This is a sonnet that denies itself the possibility of being a sonnet, in the classical sense of the term. Yes, there are fourteen lines in the poem. Yes, the iambic pentameter is virtually flawless. Yes, the rhyming scheme, modified as it is, still provides a sense of traditional formality. And yet, there is no narrative to be read. There is neither closure nor amplification of the sonnet’s meaningful resonances in the closing lines.

What we have here is the deployment of what Mazer himself has called “poetry mathematics”: “In the mathematics of poetry, number can never be understood as anything more or other than what is both incomprehensible and incontrovertible.” The metrics of the sonnet — that is, its “numbers” — accounts for its incomprehensive linguistics while it supports the incontrovertible solidity of its prosody. This piece is, in a few words, an uncommon, memorable sonnet. [3] Once again, to evoke Paz, the presence of poetry has found a place in the house of the poem’s language and meter. The poem becomes for the reader a source of sentiment in its calculated meaninglessness. The latter, in time, justifies its self-supporting rhetoric.

But then again, does a poem actually need to justify its own language and its own rhetorical structures? In the case of Ben Mazer, the answer is yes. And this is a response that he shares with the major poets of practically every national tradition in the West. Because of this, when writing about Mazer’s poetry — which, of course, entails a series of emotional readings rather than intellectual ones — the voice of Valéry comes to mind. While trying to define Mallarmé’s poetical character, Valéry stumbled upon the following thought:

I found that [Mallarmé’s] bizarre combinations of words could be very well be explained; that the difficulty one experienced in understanding came from the extreme contraction of the images, from the fusion of metaphors, from the rapid transmutation of extremely condensed images that had been submitted to a sort of discipline of density [. . .] that the poet had imposed on himself and which was in harmony with his intention to keep the language of poetry always strongly, and almost absolutely, distinct from the language of prose. [4]

Valéry prefigures Mazer’s ideas regarding the explicability of a poem set down in his chapbook, The Foundations of Poetry Mathematics. For both Valéry and Mazer, a poem must say something; in that sense, any poetic composition that intends to be a poem is, to use Mazer’s own term, incontrovertible. Nevertheless, in Mazer’s poetry — just as in Valéry’s interpretation of Mallarmé — the act of saying is not necessarily equivalent to the act of signifying. It is only when the language of a poem parts with the obligation of signification that it can achieve the poetic density that Valéry so much appreciates in the poetry of Mallarmé. After all, and when trying to explain his own philosophy of composition, Valéry believed that the numbers (metrics, rhythms, rhymes, musicality, etc.) always came before the actual words at the moment of conception, mentally rather than on paper. One cannot help but wonder whether Mazer’s compositional processes, the development of his very mathematics of poetry, are not somehow akin to what, in this respect, Valéry saw in Mallarmé and in himself; for example:


Betwixt you and me
is a tying of sea and sea
to where I outward can’t recall
the being there I would foresee
when I met you; I was three
and I couldn’t need to forestall
your vying, lying further on
where the rocky mists repeat
the savage mariner’s devout
interlocutions, and the sea
is implicating you with me.

One can hear, almost, the rhythms of Blake’s songs, either of innocence or of experience, in the incantatory mathematics of this tiny jewel, and cannot help but wonder the extent to which the Mazer’s compositional resolution invites, in lines like these, the presence of literary forerunners whose notions of poetry were very much determined by the favours of imaginative illumination. Mazer’s own illumination is the pleasure he takes in the possibilities of language. Unlike Blake, Mazer revels in the physical presence of his own poetic self, which best expressed in the “I” (or “me”) that characterizes so much of American verse in the 20th and 21st centuries. In view of this musical vigour, which emanates from rhetorical self-awareness, one cannot help but trying to explain the poem, to figure out what it actually says, in terms of its own nature as homage. It is a poem of separation that, however, ends in the fusion of two individualities, in the weirdly moving “. . .and the sea/ is implicating you and me.” In short, the composition is homage paid by one to — and through — the other, whoever they may be at any particular moment.

Yet, the veracity of “Homage,” or its incontrovertibility, lies not so much in what is says, or in what we sense it may say, but in how it says it. The bluntness of the its rhymes (“me”/ “sea”), the playful cacophony of juxtaposed gerunds (“vying, lying”), and the fierceness of its marine images (“rocky mists” or, more to the point, “the savage mariner’s devout interlocutions”) amount to an explosion of linguistic vividness that counterbalances, or perhaps simply justifies, the brevity of the poem. The poem, thus, does a very unusual thing: it does not so much say, as it moves. Actually, it sways. Not because it describes the ebb and flow of the sea — not even because it tries to evoke the sea, which it does not do in any case. It sways because its language figures, both linguistically and imaginatively, the vastness of the sea, the inevitability of an encounter, and the impossibility of stillness between two immediate presences. Given the limited spatial proportions of “Homage,” this kind of poetic density (this “discipline of density,” as Valéry would say) is a remarkable feat on the part of Mazer.

I need to go back, inevitably perhaps, to one of the poetic maxims that have traced the fate of poetry, not only in America, but in the greater part of the Western hemisphere: “no ideas but in things.” Clichéd as it may seem, the concept suits Mazer, whose poems have been said to become things, very much in the way that “The Red Wheelbarrow” has been believed to constitute an actual red wheelbarrow. I have often thought that this reading of Williams’ phrase sounds very much like an affectation, and my encounter with Ben Mazer’s poetry has only confirmed the suspicion that a strong, self-aware poet can avert, perhaps not the influence of another major poet — which is ultimately desirable, in spite of the overarching agon that it implies — but the pseudo-defining readings of that poet’s critics.

Mazer’s verse is neither in ideas nor in things, but midway between the two. It broods upon the impressive implications of its own language and does not — or cannot — rid itself of the inexplicability of metaphor. One must assume this when reading, for instance, the closing lines of a poem like “Second Rhapsody on a Winter Night,” which contain, in their accomplished measures, an unsettling tension between feeling and sensation, between impression and perception:

Consciousness and being drains.
Landscape and emotion rains.

Ancestral resonances freeze.
And the toy soldiers storm the seas.

It is precisely in this tension that the force of Ben Mazer’s poetry can be fully appreciated. Mazer’s images here are anomalous; they escape even the language-bending nature of metaphor, which, when clear, can always be explained through rhetorical analysis and interpretation. The things and concepts in Mzer’s poems have ceased to be things and concepts, as they are incapable of putting forth “straightforward” ideas. When a resonance freezes and an emotion rains, you know that you have encountered a poet that has transcended the archaic choices of rhetoric, and has transformed them with a deep sense of the personal. It is best to leave a final definition of Mazer’s own craft to the poet himself. In “Second Rhapsody,” Mazer conceives the preparation of a silent, unannounced future, “wordlessly as memory.” This is how the best poetry, memorable poetry, must be prepared. It is how readers should respond to the most satisfactory of poems, whatever its length or scope —wordlessly as memory.

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About Mario Murgia

Mario Murgia is a full-time professor and a part-time poet who lives in Mexico City. At the National University of Mexico he teaches subjects that range from Old-English Poetry to 20th-Century Mexican and Spanish literature. His publications include translations of Milton’s work (Areopagitica, Comus), essays on Geoffrey Hill, Dylan Thomas, and Salvador Novo, and poetry of varied length and scope. For some reason, poets like Ben Mazer seem to be keen on his critical views on literature. . . and, possibly, on other delicate matters.