Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Rodney Jones and the Living Poetic Heritage

As much as I love poetry, and spend time around it where I can, it’s grown harder and harder to find anything I truly enjoy. As a writing teacher, I spend my days elbow-deep in my own and others’ words, and perhaps I’ve grown cynical. But I prefer to think my standards have just grown more lofty. So I enjoy finding writers who live up to my expectations.

The title of Rodney Jones' newest collection, Imaginary Logic, reflects his dreamlike narrative structure. His language comes together with the languid internal consistency of the human subconscious, and invites readers along on a journey in which sequence is only an invited guest, not a host. Consider these striking, representative lines from "Cathedral":

What I do not know is here.
I worship wood and the instant.
What is over, I cannot finish.
The angel of work is sweat.

Jones’ short, direct lines, laced as they are with seemingly contradictory images, work primarily by ducking under the cover of the reader’s consciousness and delivering their messages before we even realize they’ve arrived. Not all his verses rely on this quick one-sentence lines, though I particularly like how they work in this specifically introspective poem. For contrast, compare this more flowing stanza from “The Elementary Principles of Rhetoric”:

Coos, grunts, glurs, germs of manifestos,
cries of the Valkyrie and warrior cults,
or laws streaming out of baby monitors
before words mount their charge
and end the dictatorship of the infant.

Rodney Jones
The first line’s rhythmic onomatopoeia transitions into the more intricate imagistic subsequent lines. I particularly appreciate this, since too many poets I’ve read lately focus exclusively on their lines as only units of information, no regard for the words as sound units Even reading them off the page, these lines create a multisensory experience that goes beyond more ordinary poets.

The back cover copy cites a poem that appropriates Dante's classic imagery of Hell, but that sets the bar too low. I see poems that pastiche Seamus Heaney, C.K. Williams, Maurice Manning, Ciaran Carson, and other poets. Images, lines, and structures from other poets infuse Jones’ work, making him almost a road map to contemporary and historical poetry.

This unusually self-conscious placement amid extant poetic tradition may put off readers more accustomed to work that exists only as it is, but for more seasoned readers, it carries the reward of advancing the ongoing poetic debate. Jones' strongest poems transform other writers' images and style, setting them sideways and forcing us to reevaluate what we take for granted in writing. This makes Jones sometimes challenging, but always rewarding.

Jones homes in on key concepts that define our time, viewing them through a prism that makes the familiar new. In so doing, he forces us to reimagine ourselves. After all, if what we take for granted becomes new, surely it follows that we too become new, as in these lines from "North Alabama Endtime," in which even the clichés seem innovative:

"You're too negative about
the end of time," says Earlie.
"It's like anything different.
You have to give it a chance,
strike while the iron is hot.
And it's hot, it's very hot.
The battle of Armageddon
has probably already started."

Jones' languorous, and often quite long, poems force us to slow our own mode of thinking. Like religious music, we find his rhythms attuning our minds to something greater than ourselves. Their power comes in Jones' ability to blindside us, transform what we take for granted, and make us evaluate our what and why. This especially comes across in the long poems late in the collection, like “The Moons: Notes on the Formation of Self”:

What do you think? Do you have a self, a soul, an option
all your own and not just what others received
and passed on to you, installing it in you as one ape
will cry and another ape take it and make the same noise—
And is it fair to include the Moons’ cries among the ape cries?

I often disparage such declarative poetry, with its tone of lecture rather than inquiry, yet Jones links it in a successful portmanteau of poetic heritage. After recent complaints about poets who jump into the tradition without paying dues, I appreciate a poet who understands the audience he courts and the history he joins. Rodney Jones represents the best in contemporary poetry. And he gives me hope that good, ambitious verse is still being written today.

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