A Review of Greg Kuzma's What Poetry Is All About

Ship of the Demon Lover Going Down:
A Review of Greg Kuzma's What Poetry Is All About

I knew I had to have this book after reading a review by Jon Volkmer (“Poetry Love Potions”) on Poetry Daily in which he described its target audience thusly: “. . . for the snarling guy with the five-day beard, greasy hair, a dozen rejection slips in his pocket, and a pile of Charles Bukowski at home, that guy slugging down the latte and eyeing Eliza [Doolittle] salaciously, Kuzma is the ticket. Not The Art of the Abattoir, but Why I Have Only Nine Fingers.”

Actually, I don’t fit that description . . . I don't own any Bukowski (saw Barfly about 12 years ago, though), my grooming is, on the whole, at least average, I don't snarl (do I snarl? Well, maybe sometimes . . . as a lark), salacious? Nah (I’m so reserved and conservative my prized possession is a recording of Howl read by Laura Bush). Lattes? No self respecting poet (especially a 9 fingered one) would dilute his caffeinated shot of the Bitter Black with an abundance of frothed milk (froth, hah!) . . . nor could he afford the added expense (after spending all his dough on cheap liquor the previous night). And my rejection slips (far more than a dozen . . . don’t poets only count these by the hundred?) lie in a forgotten pile on a cluttered bookshelf in my house (I am not so embittered as to keep them on my person). I guess I have suffered the loss of a few metaphorical digits in my quite stereotypical indulgence of the poetic life, though. Cranky, that’s me. Merely cranky. Only somewhat cynical, just healthily bitter, oh . . . largely . . . disenfranchised, nudged . . . shoved to the very brink, ready to commit terrorist acts against the nation of Poetry . . . the Big P . . . interned indefinitely, anonymously, in the Guantanamo Bay of the soul . . . and all that jazz. “This sounds like a book I might write,” I thought. And so, I figured I had better read it. If my thoughts are going to be rendered unto redundancy, I prefer to be among the first to know.

Actually, the description of the “ideal” Kuzma reader Volkmer suggests, although poetic, is not really accurate (except for maybe the last sentence). I don’t think there is a “type” of reader for this book at all. This is an audienceless book (and not surprisingly, it’s no longer in print), a voice crying in the wilderness. We only relate to it insomuch as we can relate to the alienated poet inside us, and then only if we are capable of simultaneously laughing at our plight and the neurotic fantasy-prone psyche that keeps urging us back into that gerbil wheel of damnation we fondly refer to as the art. If you are a poet capable of tough self-love, that is, a self-love that entertains a sizable proportion of self-hate (or at least sees love as somewhat sadomasochistic), then What Poetry Is All About might find its way into you more deeply . . . sort of like heartworm. But, I’m getting ahead of myself . . . .

I went in with a good attitude, another hapless soldier in the Army of the Word whose job is “but to do and die”. I went in with my latex and collars and all the whips laid out. “Hit me, hit me harder!” I begged.

It did.

The first thing anyone wanting to track down this book (and it took me a while to dig up a used copy) should know is that any reviews attempting to place this book within the realm of PoBiz thought and expression will not at all paint a clear picture of What Poetry Is All About is all about. Kuzma’s work is noxious and alien and WAY outside the academic gates where no manufactured humilities can exist. It is like a manifesto of poetic cannibalism. WPIAA is not a book (I think) intended to please, delight the senses, or reinforce an easy yet amiable disdain of poetry and its current castle. It is much more like a piece of performance art that creates a gnawing uneasiness inside the reader. You won’t come away from the book chuckling to yourself, patronizing the silliness of The Poet and his fool’s errand. You WILL come away feeling recently pummeled, even sodomized, or like a volunteer from the audience who submitted to a seemingly harmless sawing in half by a stage magician, only to realize afterward that certain appendages have since gone missing.

Sure, it’s funny. There’s lots of funny in Kuzma’s book. But the cumulative effect (and WPIAA is all about ACCUMULATION) is more crushing than amusing. This is not a humor that allows us to shake off our darkness with a good laugh at the little clown inside us, rather it is an existential No Exit sign, a burial alive while the chaplain says absurd and profuse words over us.

I appreciate that in a way, but I don’t enjoy it. Discomfort in art is a good thing, I think, but a certain kind of deluge can really challenge even the most solipsistic-tolerant, meta-bred readership. WPIAA is a true heaping up . . . of words, of images, of poeticisms, of abstractions, of absurdities, and of frustrations. Stylistically challenging, that’s a decent term for it. And as the heaping up goes on and on and on and on, innumerable wonderments pass by . . . some of the most densely packed poetic images, images and phrases that are profound, funny, harsh, and true all at once. Kuzma seems to have an unlimited arsenal of these exquisite images at his beck and call. If one wrote a book of poems with one tenth, even one twentieth, of these images in it, it would be a great book. People would call it masterful. If not “people that matter”, then at least I would.

Yet, the overall effect of the stream of consciousness, small font, queer punctuation, and run-on-and-ons that gather over nearly 250 pages is chaos, obliteration, diffusion . . . nebulous. The accumulation seems to say, “See, nothing comes of this business of poetry in the end, so prepare the gallows and step in line . . . here’s your ticket . . . you’re number 17,342 . . . I’m sure you’ll be fabulous.” I may be very wrong, but I didn’t really think that was what Kuzma wanted . . . not exactly. I don’t think he wanted to entirely negate his satire, which is what I felt happened. His style is overwhelming, and I am willing to put up with a good deal of overwhelming, but this much results in the blunting of the satire. It’s as if Kuzma, the satirist, is not of one mind in his pursuit of the beast. He is half a dozen Ahabs taking different approaches to his whale, growling different sermons, wooing, reminiscing, spitting. Voices bounce off of one another and the reader ends up with a din that is ultimately unravelable. There is hate there, there’s shame, frustration, and buried beneath it, little glimmers of love, of passion for the beautiful, and maybe even a tidbit of hope on which the lid of this Pandora’s Box is slammed shut . . . again and again with varying degrees of malice . . . repeated passionlessly, sadistically . . . or maybe masochistically.

He is not throwing daggers at the poet, poetry, or the audience, so much as he’s throwing damp sponges . . . tons of them. After the act is over, the floor is a mess of puddles and squishy foam. We, the audience, are neither truly clean nor truly dirty. We are mostly nonplussed. We’ll dry out in a few minutes and continue along the same paths we always stroll. I have to think this was not Kuzma’s desired result.

I was only about a quarter of the way into the book when I began to mumble to myself, “Yeah, but what do YOU really believe? How do you deal with it? You set up the pins, now knock them down.” This never happens. If there is a monster or monsters behind the “corruption” of contemporary poetry, Kuzma does not tag them . . . possibly because he is too caught up in his own poeticizing to achieve a real hunter’s perverse and hungry discipline. And maybe that’s the “point”, maybe that’s the “meaning” of the performance . . . that poetry as a medium is flaccid, even when it’s honest, even when the poet turns his lantern upon the darkest places, he still flounders in self-indulgent, abstracted, self-annihilation. The medium kills the message it’s trying to convey.

Maybe Kuzma just got to the end of his rope, and he’s enacting a “Death by Mermaids” a la Prufrock (and arguably Eliot himself). But somehow, I don’t think so. The book is so often (at least in its bits) sharp and dangerous. Why waste all that stiletto, nasty insightfulness? I can only conclude that it is a failing of aesthetics, that the style of Kuzma’s overwhelming writing ends up being the demon lover that sinks the ship in the end. What a shame, because there is much boldness and even more brilliance. But what we end up with is a ship wreck, flotsam and jetsam tossed about in the huge ocean of language, remnants of what must have been a magnificent vessel. Powerful cannons sunk to the bottom, loaded, but never fired.

Maybe, just maybe, it is “true” as a thing in itself. Not as a text that “says something”, that diagnoses and concludes, but as an example of poetic aspirations, evils, losses, struggles that, in the end, come to nothing, dissolve in their specific idiom. Poetry as Uroboros, self-swallowing, an inward bending cycle of creation and destruction . . . both appetites of the same beast. I’m willing to imagine poetry that way, but this could be giving Kuzma too much credit. Also, why publish something that is a known arcanum, an inaudible voice, that has no readership? Probably, this stab at determining an ideology is far too abstract, and thus radically unlikely.

It’s very possible that I’m just not “getting” the whole postmodernist joke, but I have to judge the book ultimately by its overall effect on me . . . and I was left more bored, dizzy, and disappointed than pierced, skewered, enlightened (even if painfully). So, I have to conclude that, as a satire, WPIAA doesn’t succeed. Its whole is far less than the sum of its parts. In fact, the more it is divided into its elementary bits, the more one recognizes the precious metals from which the whole damn thing was built.

Yet, it will have no useful effect on anyone. And that is definitely a tragedy.

Treasure lost at sea, sunk into the deep; wet sand swallowing it, gone, too far down for any light to ever find it.

Some Quotes:

There were just too many worth noting, and even though they were often far too long, they seemed to slip by far too quickly: bullet trains.

(What IS Poetry)

“An occupation like plumbing where though one works in unspeakable circumstances yet the finished product seems to carry something away with it.”

(Man About Anything)

. . . among other things, a prong-tongued send up of Robert Bly. It’s, ultimately, I think, not an attack, doesn’t, like all WPIAA, become partisan. In fact, it almost seems as though Kuzma, or the narrative voice he creates, becomes the Bly-like persona. This makes it more fulfilling . . . but much more difficult to comprehend.)

“The Yapu Indians, when they capture a turtle, will bite off the head, thus taking the light inside. They always do this, and before they go into their women they will pour mud over their heads. They are, of course, men of the light, while we are creatures of the darkness.”

“Williams was aware of his five stomachs and used them. Frost had no more than three stomachs but he was aware of none of them. He had no spiritual life, but lived a terrible repression. It was a miracle he did not fly to pieces while dressing.”

“American Poetry has lost its contact with the physical. The Chinese poet before he writes a poem will go out and rub his face in the manure pile, or bite the head off a chicken. The American poet just sits deeper in his chair, or else she will get up and turn the radio on. This is deadly. This is why we murdered 400,000 people in Vietnam. Why our presidents open their Bibles on TV.”

(The New Poetry)

“. . . and indeed there is the restlessness of the flatly declarative statement. The new poetry feeds off such statement, much like the traveling lawn sprinkler appears to be eating up its hose as it moves. The talk is small, but the exposition tends to be clogged, if not by verbal complication, then by the richness of proclivities, an ambiguity of tonality. In the recent work of Mark Van Borderhook, for example, the eminent Canadian Flabbergationist, one cannot tell whether the poet is serious or making a joke.”

I think that last passage holds so much of what WPIAA is saying . . . or at least what I am hearing. The traveling lawn sprinkler image is so absurd, so wonderfully absurd. It does a one man band act. Auto erotic self-defeat, self-indulgence, “suburbanation”, and all put in a brilliant little box. The image is full of life, but all about death. It contains its contradiction and continues to negate its previous negation. Surround that with a dead sea of pseudo lit-crit. WPIAA is both serious AND making a joke. It follows the post-modernist mirror within a mirror reverberative trend, saying, again and again, “. . .but seriously . . .” and then adding another layer of clown makeup . . . and then saying it again while its voice sinks beneath chalky surfaces. It’s the endless colored hanky trick . . . drawn out through the entire act. Even before it’s over, we have grown dumb, numb. We have no choice but to stand up and leave the theater, to go on with our lives with the same expressions grilled into our faces. Somewhere behind us, the hanky keeps getting longer and longer, the pocket endless, infinite, filled with nothingness.