Review of Hank Lazer’s Days (New Orleans: Lavender Ink, 2002)
Hank Lazer’s Uncommonplace Days
The “daybook” or “commonplace book” is a tradition dating back at least to the seventeenth century. Not exactly the equivalent of a diary, it’s a notebook for observations, quotes, accounts, recipes, newspaper and magazine clippings, and other quotidian and perhaps otherwise ephemeral collectibles. For poets, it can also be a place to record drafts of poems. Snippets jotted into the daybook might be worked into publishable poems at a later time, or whole poems lifted intact from the daybook.
Walt Whitman kept a daybook. The notes of George Oppen were posthumously published as a daybook. And Robert Creeley has published two daybooks: A Day Book and The Day Book of a Virtual Poet. Creeley’s publication of his daybooks indicates their use as a vehicle worthy of public dissemination, and not simply a poetry journal to be scavenged for redeemable lines or a repository for memorable quotes. Such an appropriation of the daybook questions the boundary between private and public literary functions. Days, Hank Lazer’s latest collection of poems, borrows aspects of the daybook tradition, and is remarkable for its interrogation of many boundaries, including the line between public and private arenas.
In previous collections, Lazer has distinguished himself by his fluency in both experimental and traditional modes. Doublespace: Poems 1971-1989 deftly straddles these worlds with its two sections: in “Facts and Figures” Lazer explores the free-verse mode in a series of accessible meditative and biographical poems, and in “Made from Concentrate” he tips his avante-garde cards with experiments in semantic and formal disjunction.
In Days, Lazer confidently swims in the experimental current, yet also self-consciously engages categories that critics of the avant-garde sometimes accuse its practitioners of neglecting: emotion, voice, subjectivity, and an unabashed delight in the pleasures of language. For example, the first words of “Poesis” are “oh great joy”; the direct and un-ironized expression of emotional intensity sounds a strikingly un-experimental note, as does his later paean to visionary ecstasy in “3/4/95,” “we addicts of / intensity / we see . . .” In “2/2/95,” he more coolly analyzes his attachment to affect: “maybe i am / in love with / emotion . . .” Such displays withstand the risk of revealing and scrutinizing intense emotions because Lazer does not belabor them as privately experienced. Although the emotions arise from specific circumstances, he doesn’t cordon them off protectively as if the feelings belonged uniquely to him. He keeps the individuality and the commonality of emotion in a finely-balanced dialogue whose terms and questions continually circulate without resolving.
By Lazer’s own report in his “Note” at the end of the book, as well as the clue given by the title, Days bears a recognizable relation to the daybook. The poems are all dated (reproduced in Lazer’s own hand), which gives them the impression of having been written, not so much laboriously in front of a keyboard, with infinite tinkering and revisions, but rather on the run, wherever and whenever the poet happened to be inspired by some perception or thought. Perhaps the idea of the daybook proved for Lazer (who is both a professor and an administrator) to be a handy means of making use of scarce time in which to write poetry. Lazer speaks of his “allegiance to dailiness” in the book, of the importance of “assessing and accounting for, reflecting and making and remaking upon the minute variations of each day.” The 234 short, untitled poems in the collection celebrate the quotidian and the casual reflection. However, they don’t give the impression of being casually written or lifted too thoughtlessly from a notebook. For one thing, Lazer has set the formal constraint of ten short lines per poem. Also, despite their brevity, the poems pack a lot of meaning into their forms.
For example, Lazer shatters meaning with puns and enjambment. Lazer often positions a word at the end of a line so that it connects grammatically with both its own line and the next, in effect doing semantic double duty: the door swings both ways, opening into two rooms. A famous example, with startling effect, is William Carlos Williams’ “I saw a girl with one leg / over the rail of a balcony.” Lazer sometimes performs a variation on this kind of enjambment by splitting a word at the end of a line so that it means both the truncated and the complete word, similar to Hopkin’s “I caught this morning morning’s minion, king- / dom of daylight’s dauphin.” Here is Lazer’s “Poesis”:
oh great joy
of early labor
waking into day
light exact plea
sures commence &
are commensurate with
consciousness a room
of words calling
love among them
turn to light
The truncated “day” echoes the title of the book and its daybook ancestry, as well as evoking the specific occasion of awakening in the morning. “[D]ay/light” and “light” also emphasize the visual sense that is to elicit so many observations in the remaining poems in the book. “Exact” evokes both the adjective “precise,” indicating the specificity of the pleasures to come, while also suggesting the verb form. Perhaps day will “exact plea[s]” (prayers?) and pleasures, “sures” suggesting the confidence and “joy” felt in the “turning to light.” The poem resembles an aubade, with the difference that instead of the traditional regret of parting lovers at daybreak, the poet is beckoned by the increasing light of day to turn to the pleasures of the swarming words in his awakening consciousness, “love among them.”
The split-word technique and the puns, both of which Lazer uses liberally in Days, also create an offbeat and jazzy rhythm that disrupts both the meter and the meaning of the poems. For example, the following rapid-fire string of puns with their near rhymes (“6/26/95”) can be fruitfully related to rap as well as to jazz:
to daisy &
the ground under
wheel or will or
the willow bends
Lazer’s obvious joy in the beauty – and thing-ness – of objects such as flowers is reminiscent of Blake’s and Ginsberg’s visionary treatments of sunflowers. Lazer doesn’t betray anxiety about his ability to capture the daisy’s beauty in language, or to bridge any gaping chasm understood to separate subject and object, signifier and thing. Instead, his playful punning points to a reciprocal perception, in which the daisy is also implicated in the act of seeing: it has an “eye,” and has “designs upon / you.” Lazer recognizes the objects in his field of vision as participants, not passive objects.
Lazer’s reveling in lyrical beauty and musicality in Days is also evidenced by his appreciation for – and borrowing from – jazz. Several of Lazer’s poems contain references and tributes to Thelonius Monk, such as “1/3/95,” in which he praises the “not fixed rhythm” and the “infinite rhythmic difference” of Monk’s complex music. In the same poem, Lazer also refers to the “tactical erasure” within jazz, presumably to the system of offbeats that is one of its hallmarks. This phrase also recalls the incorporated silences in jazz that make what isn’t sounded just as important as what is. In fact, negative acoustics (like the negative space of sculpture) multiplies the possible sonic interpretations. Similarly in spirit, if not in precise analogy, Lazer incorporates in these poems some important lessons from jazz rhythms, and makes much use of off-rhythms and gaps, and of jagged, complex shifts of meaning.
Another aspect of Days reminiscent of the traditional daybook is the incorporation of quotes from poets and musicians throughout. In the days in which poets did not generally collect and publish their works, they and their friends often copied whole poems that they admired into their daybooks. Indeed, this is the only reason that some poems – by John Donne, for example – have been preserved. Lazer explains in his “Note” that he considered subtitling Days “a book of kinships and friendships,” in reference to the quotes from other poets that he weaves into his poems. He sometimes credits these poets by indicating (again, in his own hand) their names and a brief citation in the margin next to their words. Days is sprinkled with references to, and quotes from, Lazer’s poetic predecessors and friends. Lazer’s tributes diffuse his own poetic voice and broaden the traditionally private tone of the lyric by engaging in sympathetic dialogues with the words of others. In “12/17/94,” he borrows from Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy” in his comically heavy-handed put-down of the coercive, commercialized, and patriarchal celebration of Christmas that seems far too inescapable for comfort:
have gotten used
oh euphony you
with your Luftwaffe
and your gobbledygoo
happy new year
His seamless incorporation of the words of Plath and many other poets makes Days a project of sympathy, in the literal sense of feeling with another. In effect, by incorporating the words of others, Lazer expresses a commonality of experience that alters the traditionally private self-expression of the lyric, and blurs poetic borders between self and other.
Another way in which Lazer accomplishes this diffusion of lyric voice is through his imitations of several poets in tribute to them, including Jackson Mac Low (“3/31/95”) and Jake Berry (“12/26/94”). In contrast to Harold Bloom’s doctrine of the anxiety of influence, Lazer welcomes influence from other writers. In fact, he invites his readers (as well as himself) to do the same with his own words in the following poem (“9/23/95”), in which he significantly omits the first-person subject:
do hereby assign
to all future heirs (myself included)
the right to
as made use of
this specific con
figuration of words
As we have seen, the splitting of “con” from “configuration” is a technique that Lazer uses to enrich the poems’ semantic field. The poet as con artist engages in a bit of semantic juggling to evoke the opposed meanings of the prefix “con-,” which can mean both “against” and “with” or “together.” His own words, he seems to be indicating, are in the public domain of the “air” for others to use freely, either in agreement or in argument with him. This broad permission to others, as to himself, to use the written word for one’s own purposes, perhaps to create one’s own con-cert of voices, challenges the notion of the private ownership of language. It invites a freedom from the copyright ideology, perhaps to move toward more of a gift economy constituting a poetic account that everyone would have “the right to / draw on.” Such an economy would foster, not the anxiety of influence, but the free and welcome exchange and borrowing of poetry. A return, if you will, to a daybook economy of poetry.
Interestingly for a book conceived as a poetic journal, the subject is not at the center of the poems (the personal pronoun is sparingly used). Or rather the self that emerges is a consciousness not so much concerned with delineating its stance or reaching an emotional epiphany (difficult in any case to do in ten short lines), as with investigating the surrounding world, what the day sheds its light on. To be sure, the presence of a writing self is evident on every page, in the handwritten dates, citations, dedications, and the occasional scrawled-in revisions. Self and authorship are not so much denied as diffused and questioned as categories with discrete boundaries and inherent properties. The tension between the dualities of self and other, and private and public, does not so much produce conflict as generate dialogue between the two.
In his questioning of the subjective stance, as well as in his embracing of a degree of semantic indeterminacy, Lazer flows with the current of experimental writing. True to the avant-garde tradition in which Lazer has been working for many years, the poems in Days have their grammatical warps and semantic ellipses. Nevertheless, there is at their heart an accessibility, or rather an openness and a human warmth in their semantic field that engages and draws in the reader. There is a meaningful “something” to get at, but that something keeps shifting to an offbeat rhythm that won’t hold still. Consider the solecisms of “5/13/95,” which reads like a jigsaw puzzle with half the pieces missing:
you would be
& the gray day
scattering as risk
whether it’s this
mustn’t do that
i ask you
plastic crash helmet
does the soul
what utter fabrication
crosses over into
If the rest of the pieces were to fall into place, completing the poem’s grammatical structure, the poem might make more sense, but those pieces might also detract from just what makes the poem work so well. Correcting the poem’s silent gaps by filling them in might indeed make it more “accessible,” but at the expense of the poem as an “utter fabrication” (recalling poetry’s Greek root poiein, to make or create) whose openness leads the soul away from the daily “mustn’t do’s” and tiresome choices, and that scatters the day’s grayness in risk-taking. There’s music in those gaps.
Poets writing in the avant-garde or experimental tradition sometimes speak of giving themselves permission to break the rules, whether those rules have to do with received forms, the construction of identity, the emotional trajectory of a poem, or the unification of its images into a coherent whole. Through their radical experimentation, poets such as the avant-garde modernists Gertrude Stein and William Carlos Williams, and more recently, Clark Coolidge, Lyn Hejinian, Bruce Andrews, and many others, have given a new generation of poets from the 1960s to the present, license to question all manner of categories and modes of expression that were considered the appropriate domain of poetry.
Lazer reminds us, however, that there is a danger in taking avant-garde theories and principles so seriously, or to such an extreme, that they become restrictive sets of rules and dogmas. For example, if one understands the avant-garde project of questioning the categories of self, message, beauty, musicality, spirituality, and the dreaded transcendental signified as a project of prohibitions, then such questioning may have evolved into strictures that prevent the engagement of opposed terms in dialogue. The pendulum may have swung too far in the opposite direction, and set in place its own hierarchy of the very dualisms it sought to disrupt in the first place. In his afterword Lazer tells us that
Days allowed me a means to return to a musicality and lyricism that felt very joyous – a way away from some of the implicit do’s and don’t’s of avant garde praxis; a means back into modes of beauty that I had (perhaps mistakenly) abandoned.
In other words, Lazer has given himself permission to question the permissions of an avant-garde that to some (particularly to some members of the younger generation of experimental poets) have become too rigidly understood. Indeed, experimental poetry and poetics is experiencing a return to a frank and self-conscious exploration of notions of beauty and musicality. Such concerns were never lost to experimental poets, of course, but they have been neglected and even denigrated in some discussions. A revival of interest in these categories is refreshing.
In Days, Lazer successfully engages these concerns without overworking the emotions concomitant to the project of giving in to the pleasures of the lyric. He also does not abandon what I believe to be one of the most important achievements of experimental poetry: that of engaging dualistic terms (such as public and private, self and other, greater and lesser degrees of referentiality) in an open-ended and nonresolving dialogue. He takes pleasure in the objects on which the day sheds its light, yet the objects (as well as the language used to refer to them) retain their own shining dasein. Lazer allows them to bask in their own light and resists appropriating them for metaphorical service in the grander (yet illusory) interest of a coherent whole.
I conclude by appropriating some phrases in Days, since Lazer has invited us to draw on his account. In “9/13/95,” he uses words, in praise of John Taggart’s poetry of repetition, that have overtones of Pound’s description of literature as “news that STAYS news.” Lazer’s encomium also aptly describes his own successful project in Days. Because of the poetics of dialogue that Lazer engenders and the boundaries that he confounds, while simultaneously reveling in the joy of creation, Days is poetry that “re / news re pays engagement.”
 See Blake’s “Ah! Sun-flower” from Songs of Experience and Ginsberg’s “Sunflower Sutra.”