Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Poem: Harryette Mullen

Harryette Mullen (from Reed College's website)
Since I'm going to be very busy the rest of this week (cf. the next post), I need to be more concise with these introductions, and so today I've selected a poem that requires the reader do a bit of the heavy lifting, though it really isn't that tough--though the poem is "heavy," in the sense that people of my father's (50s and 60s) generation used to use that term, which is to say, complex and profound. The poem is "Any Lit," and the poet is one of my favorites, Harryette Mullen (1953-). She once gave me and everyone else in the poetry workshop she was teaching an excellent bit of advice, which was: instead of waiting for the right time to write, to devote even a tiny sliver of each day towards writing a poem--or writing anything--and so by the end of every week, every month, every year, you'd have something before you. It's not always so easy to do, but it does work!

Harryette has published seven books of poetry, and I first learned about her work from members of the Dark Room Writers Collective, who had come across her second, highly innovative book, Trimmings (1991), which formally riffs off the work of an experimental predecessor, Gertrude Stein, suffusing Steinian language with even more play, eros and soul. Harryette was on her way, and the poem, a quintessential example of her work over the last few years, below demonstrates her playfulness, wit and humor, but also her rigor. It utilizes formal constraints but in a different way than rhetoricians urging a close study of Quintilian or Oulipo poets wielding n+7 techniques by combining many of the rules, which is to say, mechanisms of possibility, of the two. So there is the rhetorical device of the anaphora that launches each line, and the epistrophic repetition of the final word beginning with "m," with the constraint that the fourth word in each line has to possess the initial sound "u," as in "yew," followed by the words "beyond my." The regularity creates anticipation as you read and listen, since you have a sense of what's coming but you are continually surprised. Then there is the issue of these metaphorical comparisons in analogical relation, creating their own logic line by line, but then collectively creating a logic (or illogic), that feels like an apt figure for literature or, more specifically poetry. 

Okay, it sounds crazy, but look at what this poet does with it. I find it can't get her poems out of my head for a while after reading a few of them. You are a euchre beyond my Mah Jongg.... A great teacher as well as person, Harryette is a professor of English at UCLA, and in addition to her poetry has published important scholarly and critical works, and fiction. I would love to see what she might do with (and to) a novel!


You are a ukulele beyond my microphone
You are a Yukon beyond my Micronesia
You are a union beyond my meiosis
You are a unicycle beyond my migration
You are a univese beyond my mitochondria
You are a Eucharist beyond my myocardiagram
You are a unicorn beyond my Minotaur
You are a eureka beyond my maitai
You are a Yuletide beyond my minesweeper
You are a euphemism beyond my myna bird
You are a unit beyond my mileage
You are a Yugoslavia beyond my mind's eye
You are a yoo-hoo beyond my minor key
You are a Euripides beyond my mime troupe
You are a Utah beyond my microcosm
You are a Uranus beyond my Miami
You are a youth beyond my mylar
You are a euphoria beyond my myalgia
You are a Ukrainian beyond my Maimonides
You are a Euclid beyond my miter box
You are a Univac beyond my minus sign
You are a Eurydice beyond my maestro
You are a eugenics beyond my Mayan
You are a U-boat beyond my mind-control
You are a euthanasia beyond my miasma
You are a eurethra beyond my Mysore
You are a Euterpe beyond my Mighty Sparrow
You are a ubiquity beyond my minority
You are a eunuch beyond my migraine
You are a Eurodollar beyond my miserliness
You are a urinal beyond my Midol
You are a uselesness beyond my myopia

Copyright © Harryette Mullen, "Any Lit," from Sleeping with the Dictionary, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002. All rights reserved.

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