Academic journal article Chicago Review

Douglas Oliver's New York Peom

Academic journal article Chicago Review

Douglas Oliver's New York Peom

Article excerpt

Penniless Politics, a long poem by the British poet Douglas Oliver, could be called a quintessentially New York poem, if by "New York poem" were understood the result of necessary changes in that genre in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Under the pressures of deregulated capitalism and multinationalism, multiculturalism and immigration, an attempt to write seriously in and of New York could only result in something different from predecessor poems. Serious predecessors would include poems by Whitman, Crane, and Ginsberg, as well as poems by the various generations of the New York School, which I have recently defined as successive groups of poets responsive in their writing to New York as a community and as an international city. As a community New York is still unique, still that in-your-face place where you are free to do what you want but are also accountable to strangers for it, are anonymous but never alone. As an international city New York is simply an example, one of many which reflect the moment's economic and cultural forces, complications, paradoxes-all those fuzzy words which any poem would ignore in order to tell what's going on.

Oliver lived in New York on the Lower East Side between roughly 1987 and 1992, having previously lived in various English cities and then in Paris; and having recently written a poem called The Infant and the Pearl, a satire on Thatcher's England, the new England, based exactly on the rigorous verse requirements of the medieval poem The Pearl. Oliver's theory had been that if a political satire were written in a form such as that of The Pearl, it would be dignified and permanent as well as satirical, with the kicker being The Pearl's rigid use of alliteration. (Alliteration in Oliver's poem turns out to be loopy: dreamy and joky and lacy.) The poem had been a great success in England. By not writing from England but from France, Oliver had had distance enough to see before other poets how England had changed; moving to New York he perceived the same forces at work there when (believe me) hardly anyone else did. Bogged down in a life in one's city, one often sees it in the way of the art of ten, twenty years ago; the movies sometimes keep up better by depicting the world as it looks but are always constructed around the same perfectly stupid stories. Poets often aren't looking because they're looking inside themselves; it's rare to catch a moment when things are changing. Oliver's Penniless Politics catches its moment in detailed accuracy, through an unusual and deliberately idealistic story, but it's fun.

Penniless Politics abounds with tenements and streets, references to the likes of "Leona" and a Sharptonesque Reverend, the Rainbow Coalition, crack (refigured as the ultimate drug Behemoth), and recognizes the arrival of new immigrants, as exemplified in the takeover by Koreans of bodegas and corner stores. That is its moment, though its real moment is the future since the new immigration was and is just starting. The poem is set in a moment of transition when New York once again appears to be crumbling, downsliding from some previous glorious era into a dirty chaos, an inferior monument full of a more ordinary vitality than that of "the arts" (New York and its painting, architecture, literature patronized by its elite and often celebrated by New York poets.) In Penniless Politics New York means a lot of immigrants trying to get by, a lot of loud and lively people grubbing for money. The form of the poem is meant to sound like the streets, like New York speech, and a bit like rap: an eight-line stanzamodified from Tasso's ottava rima-with end-rhymes and internal rhymes, long talky lines that turn surprisingly:

All politics the same crux: to define humankind richly.

No one non-populist or penniless can found a viable party

though most religions have such saints. She was his Haitian

saint Emen-Emen for Marie Noelle-for non-Christian

Mary-Christmas. …

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