Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Possibility of Excessive Glibness as Romance in Eduardo Corral’s Poem “Caballero”

[Blogger's Note: Due to my inadequacies, I cannot figure how to post excerpts of a poem with its intended spacing on the page and resulting line breaks. Such representational problems don't do justice to the poem, so I please ask you to clink on the link to see Eduardo Corral's great poem in its entirety as it was meant to be seen.]

Recently in my creative writing class, I shared this observation: young male undergraduates rely too much on glibness; the females privilege sentimentality. I have no doubt that a lot of the CW bloggers would find something pedagogically unsound in making such a public statement in the classroom. And they might be right.

But I always find it amusing how many poetry teachers/bloggers claim to teach sophisticated, experimental texts in the classroom. Our students understandably have a difficult time offering a close reading of an Accessible Narrative Poem. Anyone who thinks differently hasn’t been in the classroom long enough, or hasn’t put enough pressure on students to find out how they really do go about analyzing a poem. Reading comprehension is what needs to be taught in our undergraduate classrooms. Like it or not. Only then can they interpret.

Even the most talented undergraduate struggles with identifying abstractions, interpreting connotations of a group of similarly charged words, teasing out ambiguity. And perhaps the most difficult thing to learn: active versus passive voice. Try it some time. It’s a doozy.

Yes: I teach Show, Don’t Tell. And that often, understandably, takes weeks for them to grasp.
Images make students jittery—they have to pause and linger. The males want to avoid that all together, and often their work is a summary of telegraphed punchlines.

I will hide Eduardo Corral’s poem “Caballero” from them. It’s a complete success in what exactly I fear my male students will do: list a series of telegraphed punchlines. This is the most surprising aspect of Corral’s poem: it’s a series of defiantly glib statements that accumulate in a genuinely romantic way. By the end, you find yourself thinking: Here is one of the most deservedly sentimental poems.

Corral’s poem taught me an important lesson: excessive glibness and genuine romance do not need to be mutually exclusive.

Corral’s poem is no more than a series of one-liners. And here, that’s all it should be. Not too many poets would dare to announce the punchline before it presents itself, setting us up with brazen line breaks and smart typographical arrangement.:

...Once a year
he eats a spoonful of dirt
from his father’s grave.
In his sleep
he mutters lines
from his favorite flick,
Contra Los Vampiros.

So many gay poems strive to be gritty in a false way: depictions of dull, anonymous sex, offering a blow job at a public park. Here’s the ultimately grittiness eating “a spoonful of dirt” undercut through the pathos of the next line (“from his father’s grave”). That pathos, too, though is deflated once we realize that he’s made a smart joke.

Or look at this:
When a word stalls
on his tongue he utters,
Sufferin succotash.
Stout. Apache-
dark. Curious
and quick.
He builds up the bridge
of his nose with clay.

Who cannot resist a somewhat somber poem that unexpectedly includes the phrase “Sufferin succotash."?

It takes a fun poet to also mine the potential laugh in a mere two-word fragment. Here we have the simultaneous use of “Apache” as a noun and adjective. That’s one of the wonders of poetry: how a line break can create more. In the best poems, there’s an abundance. Even in ones as compact and smartly overdetermined as this. This line break strategy invariably heightens the glibness:

lost in the desert,
he ate beak-
punctured pitayas;
pissed on his fingers to keep them warm.

Yes: the joke is telegraphed once again. But anticipation still results: the word beak standing in for the chicken as a whole, a meal, as well as it describing the injury to the cactus.

Is love ultimately as telegraphed as a joke? With the poem’s closure, (“When I ride him at night I call out/ the name of his first horse.”), I don’t know if the sentence is the quintessential declaration of love or a glib final punchline. With multiple readings, I don’t know if there is any differentiation between the two. Or that there should be.

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