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Vol. 2 No. 4 Jul 2003

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The Acid Tongue
Dan Schneider connects the dots

Selected By Cyril Wong

I think it is high time every lover of contemporary poetry reads Dan Schneider’s essays on www.cosmoetica.com. Why? For starters, he is goddamn refreshing in his unashamed way of putting just about any critically-acclaimed or seriously up-and-coming poet in his or her place by making us see just how overrated he believes so many of them are. Sure, one may argue that he gets a bit carried away – as you will discover when you pleasurably devour paragraph after paragraph of his denunciations – and comes across as too bitchy and even ridiculous at points, too presumptuous about his own unfailing objectivity.

But one cannot help but savour the malice as well as the nuggets of truth as they appear, as when Schneider calls Sharon Olds (a past poet laureate for the state of New York) a “disingenuous poet” and a 5th rate Sylvia Plath, 40 years too late,” or when he attacks every political poet’s idol, Carolyn Forché, and elaborating acidly on how The Angel of History is “a dull, prolix reply to The Waste Land – only 7 or so decades too late.” It is literary entertainment of the most vindictive and oddly cathartic kind.

Rather than to enter a potentially interesting discussion about whether Schneider’s implicit antagonism towards the conventions and ideologies that determine when a poet is good or bad is merely a case of jealousy or bitterness due to lack of recognition for his own work as a poet, or whether Schneider is really just promoting his own personal aesthetic under exactly the same guise of critical objectivity that he objects to when others adopt it, let us simply enjoy what Schneider is capable of.

In one of his latest essays, his target is Leslie Adrienne Miller and her latest collection, A Connect-the-Dots Picture. Here is how he begins:

Ever met someone who just cannot stop talking? Ever wonder what that person is called? Here’s the word- a logorrhetic; they suffer from logorrhea- aka diarrhea of the mouth. Many poets nowadays suffer from this affliction & sobriquet. Rather, I should say many ‘poets’ suffer from this... throw some clichés together, break some prose into lines at an odd place, & you - too - can call yourself a ‘poet’.

He is so bitchy he brings out her biography to draw attention to all the hackneyed and typical signifiers that so many attempt to appropriate and plant upon themselves like semiotic badges so that they may be deemed “qualified” enough to enter established poetic discourse and be formally recognised as “poets”:

Leslie Adrienne Miller's fourth full-length collection of poems, Eat Quite Everything You See, came out from Graywolf Press in spring 2002. Her previous collections include Yesterday Had a Man In It (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 1998), Ungodliness (CMU, 1994) and Staying Up For Love (CMU, 1990), and "No River," winner of the Stanley Hanks Memorial Award from the St. Louis Poetry Center. She has won a number of prizes and awards and has published in a number of magazine and anthologies including American Poetry Review, Ploughshares, Antioch Review, The Georgia Review and The New England Review. Currently associate Professor of English at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., she holds an M.F.A. from the University of Iowa Writer's Workshop and a Ph.D. from the University of Houston.

Next, Schneider takes a look at the titular poem to see if it really is poetry or randomly broken prose:

A Connect-the-Dots Picture

The pine tree at the corner of the lot
where my childhood home, a ranch house,
sits like a snapped sugar wafer on a slope.
Tents in Upton’s field collapsed and pushed
aside for a game of kickball or just tumbling.
The oldest Upton girl whom I adore,
nearer adulthood than I, her head in a sky
I cannot but wish to see. Follow me,
she says, I will show you something really neat.
And I go up the stone path and stairs
among the lolling day lilies and ivy
behind the marvelous girl to a place
nested in trees where a garden hose
uncoils in her hand. There, she says,
holding the metal-rimmed end to my face.
I must be nine, possibly ten. I love Christy.
She taught me to make ice cream in a bucket.
She combed my hair as if I were a doll.
She took my hand and led me away from the gang
of boys in the field where I tried so hard
to be good and strong. There, she says tenderly,
look in there, and I cast my whole being
into her command. Some wonder is about
to happen in the dark hole of the hose.
Sputter of laughter, and more laughter,
and I realize I cannot see her, or anything.
There has been a blast of air, water. I think
I am crying and hope not. In this world
tears have never been good. Once, when Casey cried,
his sister forbade me to tell anyone, ever,
and she smacked him till he stopped.
But now my face is wet, my hair, my loose
summer shirt, which I like more than all the others
in my drawer because it has two girls on it,
hand in hand, and they wear shirts exactly
like this one. No, I am not sobbing. Good.
But I am cold, and my eyes sting.
I try to look where Christy was and may
still be when the smarting stops. She is trying
to teach me something adult. Complicated.
How it feels to be stung by the force
of your own desire turned back on you,
and the possible responses: regret or fury.
One day I will understand that one is antidote
to the other. Years later in the darkening room
of a country not my own, real history heaped
in the corners, I stand next to a man
who has just begun to be weary of my hopefulness,
unwavering desire that simply asks for it.
His is a small travesty, a forgotten promise
that left me waiting all of an afternoon.
Smell of wet stones, gnats hovering
around the spigot dribble. My shirt has not
been ruined, Christy clucks, unnerved at this kid
who stands in mute trust, dripping, comic,
obscenely forlorn. This was not the point.
She meant to send me screaming like any child,
home—but home, if ever I had one
is on another continent, inching away.
The man draws back from the insipid scene,
unpleasant female disappointment gathering
in his room, ruining the evening, filling his shoes,
making the air too close. The offending garden hose
settles far under the ivy, and it is intolerable
that I should keep standing here expectantly,
taking it, asking for more, still too much
in love. It was that, then, that Christy wanted
to wash from my face. In the long minute
of my blindness, the summer afternoon went
cruelly on in my ear. A horsefly. The dog
somewhere itching itself. Smack
of the rubber ball against a boy’s toe
down in the field. Small shush of ivy
where the hose falls. Drips on the stone.
It’s only water, dummy, she says, disgusted.
I look straight into her eyes and she sees
she hasn’t gotten rid of it, that appalling
ardor. Too much of something sticky, serious,
and she hates me for it.

Are you still awake? This poem is not as cliché-laden as most of her tripe but it is dull, dull, DULL! How many times have we seen ‘poems’ written by female poetasters about lost love, teen angst, unfulfilled dreams- count the # of words that are overblown & melodramatic, the # of overdone modifiers. The poem starts with a nice idea by just stringing images together & hoping to force the reader to ‘connect’ things. Unfortunately the images are so snooze-inducing that there is no care to. Same with the trite narrative- & hints of (oolala) lesbianism. In order to maximize this poem we must minimise its length. By just removing lines we do just that. We combine a few, split the poem in to 2 quatrains (to, again, force a reader to connect), & end the poem without any punctuation to affect its being left hanging; to again force a reader to attempt to connect whatever they want to imbue it with. Read:

A Connect-the-Dots Picture

And I go up the stone path and stairs
behind the marvelous girl to a place
I must be nine, possibly ten. I love being
and I realize I cannot see her, or anything.
But now my face is wet, my hair, my loose
hand in hand. But I am cold, and my eyes sting
of my blindness, the summer afternoon went
cruelly on in my ear. A horsefly. The dog.

In these 8 lines note the improvement. We’ve dropped the trite narrative & truly get some unique phrasings. The speaker goes behind a marvelous girl, & to a place where he/she must be a certain age. Then line 3 ends with an existential statement, & line 4 with self-denial. The 2nd stanza starts with a near breathlessness, & another interesting twist - the summer afternoon’s entry within the speaker’s ear. We then end with observations of things. This is the making of a possibly good poem. The original was prose. Don’t believe me? Reread the original without breaks & tell me why any of the breaks in the original are there.

And yes, Schneider rewrites the entire original poem without line breaks this time, and although there may ultimately be potential argument anyway about whether the original’s line breaks are justified, and whether Schneider’s own reworking is truly effective, you may just be unable to help yourself but want to agree with Schneider in any case. He is that fun to read, as well as potentially edifying.

Is it Miller or Schneider who's dotty? Drip acid in the Forum!

'The Acid Tongue' is a column that celebrates acerbic reviewing. Mail us if you know of any examples.

QLRS Vol. 2 No. 4 Jul 2003


About Cyril Wong
Mail the editors
Return to Vol. 2 No. 4 Jul 2003

  Related Links

External link.

The Cosmoetica review of Leslie Adrienne Miller
External link to Cosmoetica.

Leslie Adrienne Miller profile
External link to Graywolf Press.

Leslie Adrienne Miller bibliography
External link to University of St Thomas.

Yesterday Had A Man In It
External link to Carnegie Mellon University Press.

Two Leslie Adrienne Miller poems
External link.


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