Wednesday, July 05, 2006

The Poetry of A.E. Stallings

The Poetry of A.E. Stallings

A.E. Stallings recently published HAPAX, her latest book and published in 2006.

Among contemporaries, Stallings makes for some of the most enjoyable reading. Her skill with language and form is foremost. Too few contemporary poets stick out their necks like Stallings, preferring the ease of free verse.

Stallings poetry is clever and that can be taken in its complimentary or pejorative way. Her poems can be compared to Wilbur's and especially to Edna Saint Vincent Millay; in certain respects, Dorothy Parker. They are cogent, masterfully fitting theme to form. When Stallings is off, though, she only writes prettily. Her language feels studied and affected; and she can’t help remind readers of the Victorian poets in the thrall of Greek myth. Most of all, few of her poems exceed the sum of their parts. One wonders if there are not more profound or deeper emotional experiences she is not sharing or if the formality of her poetry is a kind of barrier. The risk in formal poetry is in letting the formality become the matter of the poem, intentionally or otherwise.

First, consider the poem "An ancient Dog Grave, Unearthed During the Construction of the Athens Metro." It begins:

"It is not the curled up bones, nor even the grave
"That stops me, but the blue beads on the collar..."

The first facet of Stallings' writing is her easy and regrettable use of linguistic archaisms like "nor". "Nor" just isn't used in common parlance and I wonder why she felt compelled to use it except for the sound or that she likes archaic, literary sound of it. She could have written:

It is not the curled up bones, not even the grave...

Her usage is especially odd in a free verse poem. (One could not successfully argue that this poem is blank verse.) Formalist poets frequently resort to literary archaisms because they're needed for metrical padding but they are a form of laziness.

Stallings imagines the dog's wandering after death, making its way to the river Styx and crossing it. The poem is sensitive and touchingly asks why the owner put the collar on the dog. "A careful master/ Even now protects a favorite, just so./ But what evil could she suffer after death?" Stallings never ventures an answer. Instead, she's emersed in the underworld walk of the dog that may or may not have something to do with the collar. The poem closes with a kind of cleverness.

A shake as she scrambles ashore sets the beads jingling.
And then, that last, tense moment--touching noses
Once, twice, three times, with unleashed Cerebus.

Is this the evil the dog might suffer? Was Stallings' question only a rhetorical one? Touching as the poem may be, one wonders why anyone would read it to a friend. There is no psychological insight. The symbolism does not reach outside the poem. It does not offer anything beyond its own bemusement. It is one of those poems whose 'whole' fails to exceed the sum of its parts, charming and clever though it is. It sits like a still-life, justified by its own beauty. And for some readers this may be enough.

Consider the poem "Noir". The reader is met with the following lines:

"Late at night,
"One of us sometimes has said,
"Watching a movie in black and white,
"Of the vivid figures quick upon the screen..."

Once again that word, which only belongs in fairy tales -- upon -- makes its appearance. It is the bane of formal poets. There is no reason for Stallings to use it except for iambic appeal. There is also the matter of the archaic diction. There is no reason for the grammatical inversion of "figures quick" (rather than "quick figures") except to preserve the iambic patter. It is a form of laziness. Another example appears in the line "...lisping in tones antique..." One might argue that this "anitique" diction is intended and a kind of joke except that it is a pattern that appears in other poems.

One of my favorite poems is the modest "Lullaby near the Railroad Tracks". Almost every line offers up what's best in Stallings, an elegance of language that rivals Richard Wilbur.

"A freight train between stations
"Shook you out of sleep with all
"Its lonely ululations."

One couldn't ask for a more effortless and prefect verse than this. The rhyme of station and ululation, two contrasting words, is inevitable and natural, perfectly suggesting the child or baby's own crying. The final lines close with a lovely image:

"Here comes the freight train nosing west,
"Pulling the dawn behind her."

This is Stallings at her best. Even if it does not carry the psychological complexity of a Frost poem she is a poet's poet when she writes like this. There are no archaisms. She skillfully weaves rhyme and verse with meaning, such that the building of the poem appears inevitable. The formal poet is at his or her best when the formal structure of the poem isn't noticed.

"Aftershocks", a Spencerian Sonnet and justifiably the first poem of the book, also holds out Stalling at her best, while "Bad News Blues" plays on Stallings' sly, sardonic humor.

Overall, there is the impression that either there are very old and new poems mixed together, or Stallings is of a split person when she writes. Among the most individual and compelling poems are "Aftershocks", "Bad News Blue", "Lullaby near the Railroad Tracks", "Alice, Grown-up, at the Cocktail Party" while other poems like "Acteon", "Empty Icon Frame", "Mint" and "The Modern Greek for 'Nightmare'..." or "Noir" are too clever, frequently archaic in diction and contrived in their rhyming.

But she is among my favorite poets.

She fully takes to the various arts unique to poetry -- rhyme, meter, metaphor, simile, verse structure. She is a rarity. I'll be buying her next book as soon as it comes out.

10 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

"The first facet of Stallings' writing is her easy and regrettable use of linguistic archaisms like 'nor'."

That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard. There's nothing wrong with "nor". It's like "whom" - you wouldn't necessarily use it on the phone, chatting with a friend, but it's perfectly acceptable in written English. Are you saying that poets, who are supposed to be creating art with language, must imitate casual speech at all times? That they should hold back, dumb down, and strive to imitate the inarticulate bumblings of George W. Bush when they write?
What a ridiculous load of BS. Go read a book, for God's sake.

12:22 PM  
Blogger VTPOET said...

Unfortunately, I can't sign on to my own blog to add any more comments because of some Bloger Bug. Tech Support does not exist. I only now have seen your comment.

"Nor" is archaic.

Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary:

1 -- used as a function word to introduce the second or last...

2 --- used as a function word to introduce and negate...

3 archaic: Neither

I rest my case. I'll tell you what. I'll keep reading books. Why don't you pick up the Dictionary and read it.

3:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What an embarrassing experience this must be for the author of this gratuitous commentary on Alicia Stalling's poem. To make such an observation about a common and universally accepted word like "nor," the requsite partner of "neither," and then to have his ignorance thrown up to him by the first, second and third responders must be chagrinning. I would extend to him unmitigated sympathy had I not seen other gross examples of his educational deficiency and poetic incapacity at Eratosphere and elsewhere. As it is, he merits whatever scorn he may recieve.

2:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Uhh, dude, your dictionary entry does not prove that "nor" is archaic, it proves that using "nor" to start a series of negations, as Yeats does in the "Irish Airman" ("Nor law, nor duty bade me fight, / Nor public men, nor cheering crowds") is archaic. But if he had said "Neither law nor duty bade me fight" he would have been perfectly within the bounds of modern English (though the line would be less lovely). Alicia, as per your dictionary entry, uses the word in a correct and contemporary manner, & to chastise her for it at such length seems not only trivial but absurd. It's perfectly fine for you to eliminate words like "nor" and "upon" from your own verse if you so choose, but to impose your own private quirks and aversions onto the poetry of others with such vehemence seems narrow-minded and joylessly fanatical. I have my doubts that formal verse is dying, but if it is, neither Alicia Stallings, nor the 'nor/upon' tag-team is what's killing it. I'd recommend you save your attacks for writers that actually suck, and spend more time enjoying the ones you enjoy.

3:27 PM  
Anonymous malone said...

One day we will find that Alicia will go down as one of the greatest poets of this generation!

What did you LIKE about the book?

3:20 PM  
Anonymous Dawn C. said...

VTPoet, you do understand, right, why we other commenters say Stallings' usage of "nor" is not archaic? The way she uses the word in the lines you quote is not usage number three, which is the only usage identified as archaic in the dictionary definition that you yourself supply.

I'm new to Stallings' work and so can appreciate the fervor with which the other commenters jumped on you, though normally I'm not a fan of such behavior, so common in the blogosphere.

If she'd ever been guilty of a syntactical inversion or other crime of formalism I could see taking her to task for it, but quibbling over "nor" and "upon," used properly, makes you sound like a flunky for free verse.

Don't be a flunky for anything, that's my advice.

Also, your snooty tone in quoting the dictionary when in fact it makes Anon's case, not your own ... well, that's just sad.

12:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello Alicia,
Im Elda Kokoneshi albanian poet from Ioannina.

I wish for yoy the best!
Frendly

3:55 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I SIN?

One time
I asked myself:
- I sin?
It answer me:
- I don’t now.

After I asked:

The mountain,
the sea,
the wind.

The mountain was serious,
don’t spoke,
the sea knock
the waves,
the wind don’t listen my voice.

After I asked:

The grass,
the argent,
the bee.

The grass spooked like whiner,
somebody whipped him,
the argent shined and,
start to lie,
the bee was going,
- don’t ask me
and start to run.

I asked and the stars,
the sun,
the moon.
But they answer me
to ask my mother.

My mother kissed me with love
saying :

- Only God knows.

********************************
Life is the most important gift that God gives to us - Elanko

(ELDA ANDREA KOKONESHI)

Email: albelanko@gmail.com

http://www.freewebs.com/poezi-/ajsbergmendimeshcikel.htm

6:25 AM  
Blogger thepoetryman said...

It is not the curled up bones, not even the grave...

Perhaps she should have written...

"It is not the curled up bones, nor even the grave"

10:19 AM  
Anonymous Patrick said...

Good grief folks. This is the first I've checked this blog in a year or two. Go over to http://poemshape.wordpress.com/ if you want to talk to me.

Stallings use of the word "Nor" is archiac.

Here it is from Dictionary.Com.

"Archaic. (used without a preceding neither, the negative force of which is understood): He nor I was there. "

Found here: http://dictionary.reference.com/dic?q=nor&search=search

Again, I rest my case.

//I would extend to him unmitigated sympathy had I not seen other gross examples of his educational deficiency and poetic incapacity at Eratosphere and elsewhere. As it is, he merits whatever scorn he may recieve.//

Brave words, *anonymous*.

As for eratosphere - most poets seemed to appreciate my comments while I was there.

//Uhh, dude, your dictionary entry does not prove that "nor" is archaic//

Yes it does, Dude. See the entry above.

//It's perfectly fine for you to eliminate words like "nor" and "upon" from your own verse if you so choose, but to impose your own private quirks and aversions onto the poetry of others with such vehemence seems narrow-minded and joylessly fanatical.//

First, I'm not imposing my views on Allicia. It's called criticism.

Secondly, nowhere in my review was I as vehement as any of the responses: "stupidest thing", "inarticulate bumblings", "educational deficiency", "narrow minded and joylessly fanatical"...

//What did you LIKE about the book?//

Read my review. She's one of my favorite poets and I say so. But I stand by what I wrote.

//VTPoet, you do understand, right, why we other commenters say Stallings' usage of "nor" is not archaic?//

Yes, but all of you stand in opposition to the dictionary's own definition of Alicia's usage. I side with the dictionary. They're usually right.

//Also, your snooty tone in quoting the dictionary when in fact it makes Anon's case, not your own ... well, that's just sad.//

Snooty? My advice to all of you is to consult your dictionary. You can even do it on-line. That's not being snooty. My point is this: Take it up with those who define our language. Stop shooting the messenger.

//Perhaps she should have written...//

Hello, Poetryman. Hope all is well.

9:19 PM  

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