Trashing Impasse, Some Theories on Rod Smith
Rod Smith, In Memory of My Theories. Oakland, CA: 0 Books, 1996.

Mark DuCharme


In this his first full length collection, Rod Smith mixes his modes, switching— often at lightning speed— from the wryly intimate to the linguistically playful, from the humorous to the "abstract." If the latter mode seems dominant here at a cursory glance, then I fear In Memory of My Theories might be too easily labeled "second generation Language Poetry." That would be too bad— for Smith's best work interestingly resists the generic confines of that territory. While it frequently makes use of what seems a hard core "language" style ("unfold stem of contraction sift, as at the top and the bottom of"), what may be more easily overlooked is that this mode is adulterated from the very start with a tone reminiscent of Frank O'Hara's "personal" poems ("Lee Ann says 'Oh Rod, you're so dire'/ She's not documenting any conquests/ but it doesn't originate in a brochure").

It is no accident then that the title of the book is a play on the title of O'Hara's "In Memory of My Feelings." Smith's book ironizes O'Haraesque idealism, while being a little mistrustfully nostalgic, one thinks, for the artistic "grace" which such idealism seemed to allow the poet. ("The degree of mistrust/ magnifies the measure of abstraction./ The lightning is an exaggeration of the light.")

The allusion to O'Hara is also apt in the sense of O'Hara's association with so called "personal" poetry, a term he coined. In Smith's relaxed version of personism—& in contrast to what O'Hara claimed for his own work— the poet seems to want the writing to be BOTH between two persons and two pages. If Smith does not allow the reader to forget that the poem is made of words, neither does he entirely allow us to forget that it is a particular person who made it ("Words// have// an/ ancestor"). Where there is an "I" in Smith's poetry, it is not an Eliotic mask, much less the "detached" I familiar to readers of, for example, Michael Palmer or Ron Silliman ("Why does Ron Silliman hate Shakespeare"). If Smith's "I" is not always exactly "Rod Smith" either, a poetics of gesture lurks, sometimes awkwardly, beneath some of Smith's most austere constructs ("Plants/ to have been/ melancholic/ pavement.")

Smith posits a "cranial/ cynicism which/ creased in mince is need." If we do not readily notice that he here equates an intellectualism ("cranial/ cynicism") with "need" or feeling, it is in part because his L=A=N=G U=A=G=E like flourishes distract our attention from the grammatical function of the statement. Yet it is also because of the "opposition" of intellect to feeling- what Eliot called the dissociation of sensibility- yet so far ingrained as to constitute a received, & therefore suspect, formula. Smith's work trashes the impasse between Theory and Feeling, by readmitting a razor quick playfulness into poetic diction ("Gun profit. Gun nug. Gun lung. Hung grug. Gun from. Gun Moynihan.")

If such a poetic refuses the split between intellect and feeling, it also participates in the postlanguage reexamination of theory in the wake of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E moment. The title of Smith's book is a joke— much as the title of O'Hara's poem was ironic; for how can one lose one's theories. Furthermore, we hardly imagine Smith as a theorist; any pretense otherwise seems to be blown apart by the title of just one short poem here, "Bad Ashbery But Fun." Yet the dissociation of sensibility, in this case, between "Theories" and "Fun" is immediately problematized by the poem itself:

 A little civil thinking everyday. A little awareness.
which means
           (like a charming president) you can say
What you like
                         about america but
you can
           what you like.
                                                      Perfectly free
to go home
           Turn the sprinkler on
           and lay down in the mud.
                                                                A non accident
you'll be found not guilty of:
a musical event miss taken for a lyric kingdom
                                       the distant air enters
                                                              through distant lungs

From its opening line this poem posits (enacts) a poiesis of intellect conjoined to the "everyday", the public & private as a complex exchange ("A little civil thinking"), rather than simply in opposition. In Smith's collapse of the public/private dichotomy, the anarchic replaces an implied socialism of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets as a political means, less of critique, than of uniting theory to practice. In the counter utopian world of this poem, the "charming president" is equated with the speaker, comically announcing his freedom to "go home/ Turn the sprinkler on// and lay down in the mud." (The "freedom" announced is also comic/ineffectual because of its limits: one is "free" to do what one pleases, so long as what one pleases does not threaten the reproduction of the economic & political order). Here, the ends of inquiry are gently torqued into the numinous. The "you" is found less culpable for an outcome than "not guilty" of "a non accident," because, finally, the inhering structures of power have become irrelevant: what at first appeared "a lyric kingdom" turns out, happily, to be only "a musical event." It is in this actuated state of "musical event" where the "Bad Ashbery" is found to be of some value ("Fun"?), after all. Smith's apparent anarchism sidesteps canonical sanctity & stigmas about "imitation," even as it ignores tidy poetic prescriptions. Rather than rejecting the "opacity" of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E moment out of hand, Smith adapts its poetic vehicle to his own needs, achieving a quirky balance between Zukofskyan lower & upper limits. Rod Smith's poetics of "Theories" moderated by "Feelings" freshens the space between reader & poem, making us think (again)- if only for an instant- about the meanings of that complex exchange.

(1997; revised 2002)