I can’t read Simon Pettet without counting. In his work I hear a rarified sense of the duration of syllables on the page, a quality that I don’t often pick up on in other New York School poets. Pettet’s edgy, fresh line emanates from a carefully deployed (and as carefully violated) speech rhythm, one that admits a significantly greater range of English dialect than that of his literary kin. In this sense, Pettet’s inclusion in the New York School continues to mislead, in the same way that it’s misleading to group other Europeans who stake poems on a topical interrogation of the personal in the New York School. Pettet’s concerns do not end at the doorstep of Frank O’Hara. Literary history is too powerfully (and slyly) present in Pettet, as is the confluence of U.K. accents and overtly historical tropes, for any quintessential U.S. school assignment to adhere. The personified self in his poems is both urban and urbane, it’s true; but at its core this self is identified sincerely as Poet, shorn of parochial ironies. Without taking himself too seriously, Pettet takes the poet’s vocation very seriously. Polymorphous, emotional, wry, sharp, Pettet’s persona often exhibits a kind of self-effacing stupefaction that is easy to lose sight of when we slight the power of melos, its capacity to induce realization that arrives no other way. He catches the elusive epistemological moment without pretension, without hogwash, without frill. He gives it straight to the reader; I often find myself stunned by the experience, too. That’s why I read him. Below are notes on some of my favorite Pettet poems.
“Gas Leak”: Pettet anchors the poem in prosody. Melos is a distinctive feature of poetry at the margins of contemporary practice where logos often dominates the experimental and phanatos governs populism. At the intersection of instinct and intent, a bell rings. Simply the sound of a gas-leak — .
“Poem (Take off... the red shoes)”: In the confluence of rhetorical modes, where narration and description collide, Pettet vivifies the existential conjunction of time and space. The blue-curtained moment functions as a poetic prompt, stripped of real or fictive nostalgia. Caesurae. Hearings.
“Poem (When your friend takes all the pills)”: Enjambment as method of emotional restraint, line breaks that propels the reader forward while suspending resolution of narrative. Nothing to do with craft, which stays on the surface. I want to distinguish Pettet’s work from ready-made writing strategies. What is exhibited here is an ontology of the poem premised on the exactitude of sound.
“Blue Room”: Pettet often uses epiphany as (an observed) closure. He stops his poem at the same time that the concluding line hurls semantic momentum. The result: rereading. The beautiful ambiguous face of another person’s news.
“Poem (I wear my best pressed suit)”: The poet as persona (of a poet) (epistemology) (gap). But I make it!
“Poem (The music... loud)”: Some poets foreground intertextuality and incorporate (or dissimulate) personal, lived experience in their work, while other poets, like Pettet, write primarily about life and disclose intertextual threads of meaning(s). The struggle is to transform the quotidian into the literary. Pettet does it partly through a close attention to the syllable. Olson rears his hoary, sexist head.
“Wireless”: Once upon a time, the poet risked the edge. Have taken incredibly huge psychosis simply by being born. Not academic. Pettet does not teach in a university and his link with institutions is tenuous. Unstable economic conditions, unencumbered by academic duty and its attendant dispositions, encourage the production of a different kind of poem than do situations in which daily commodities are taken for granted. It’s ridiculous, in fact, to mitigate or even dismiss the influence of biography on artistic production, especially when the poet explicitly uses his or her own life as material.
“This Poem”: Fun/ nomenology. On a notebook in blue.
“Rose Garland Sonnet”: Carpe diem. Carpe diem. Carpe diem. Quick! Exhale.
“Cyril”: Opening the pearl box sky to discover. Romanticism has had a tough time throughout the Modern period — attacked, held in contempt, sneered at, censured. If emotion is reduced to an intellectual proposition, the poem is arguably truncated at the site of being. Pettet’s poem is not subject to this prohibition. Fearless, perhaps, because as an anti-careerist, he has nothing to lose.
“Poem (She stoops to fire-hydrant)”: The recorded speech in his poems. A language (that) (left out). Pettet’s omissions evince the psychic quality of spoken communication. Not because of deliberate mystification. But because the poems often address subject matter experienced as present in consciousness but not in language.
“Poem (I’m this dumb schmuck)”: In dialect. Among silences. Casual revelations. (Uprising.)
“Will you submit”: Class struggle, from inside. The price you have to pay. How can some poets write about poverty without taking its attendant risks? Is it really possible to have economic security and write convincingly of life at the margins? Heroic myths notwithstanding, the answer must depend on the power of literary talent. A link between literary authority and experience perforce exists. Pettet, in any case, does not compromise.
“Sick so”: Loving you is not easy / loving you / is not. Pettet locates love’s influence on perception. Hence his work provides snapshots of twentieth-century Anglo-Saxon courtship at the same time that it supplies information on the lens.
“Nocturne”: Many of Pettet’s poems have a late-night quality about them, a flaneur’s decision to move, wander, and explore while others sleep. But the lamps are kept on at home. Downstairs lights on. As Benjamin argued — the flaneur is in the crowd, but does not surrender to it.
“Poem (Night follows low down and horizontal)”: The peripatetic poet. Overdetermined content. Stomping.
“Pale Imitations”: Blake is lurking here, but “masturbation” does not belong to his vocabulary (nor would many other poets take that word literally). A nursery rhyme that cuts teeth. Show me your scars. No boredom.
“Epitaph”: Experience (as narrative) / linearity (the sequence) must grapple with closure. Then dead. The poet who sublimates biography into literature has little choice.
“Dismembering Gradations of Rank”: I thought this was a funny poem at first. Note the unplugging of the radio to put on the light. I was (not) wrong. The poet’s humor (through a lens) (darkly).
“Evergreen”: The symbolic function of specific words / overdetermined cultural freight (“pinecone” so redolent as a fertility symbol, etc.). One trend in experimental poetry is committed to discarding literary associations (“pinecone” is the seed of a conifer). Pettet tugs the connotative/ denotative line.
“Educente”: Using that rhetoric — what we say to each other when the relationship ends / is ending / continues to maybe end. I couldn’t leave you. Not a rendition of speech and never ‘just’ a transcript. Something else. A poem.
“Photographs”: Imagism. Look again. Not animistic. The cinemagraphic as a vehicle of the continuous presumes the fragmented, the partial, the broken. In the foreground is a cheese. Pettet is a master of understated narratives that profit from the tension between the idealized whole and the tragedy of the parts.
“Communications”: Silence in continual transition. A space between. Elbow room. (Breathe.) Mind that gap.
(If ever love was made...): Plea-sant/ -sure/ -sing.
“(The Bullfighter’s Secret)”: One word provokes the poem. Red goes to read, matador to toreador to troubadour. Pettet lets language lead. His poems are not belated illustrations of literary or linguistic concepts. The reader assists in the incremental sighting/ citing/ siting of the poem, word by word. Drawing the line / with a scrap of a pencil. Reading, then, recovers the poet’s process of invention rather exemplifying an idea. Improvised, never belabored. Poems worked and reworked into a deceptive spontaneity.
“The Sentence”: It is as though he were telling us. The pernicious notion of a simple statement. Pettet shirks pretension. The poem seems direct / never.
“A Storm Approaches”: Consider the poem as testimony. I’m at the kitchen table. To stay the ephemeral. Pettet is very much aware that apparently normative experience and normative language distract us from recognizing the subversive dimension present in what always seems business-as-usual. Revelation is a potential vehicle for social change. Pettet notes the rain. Thus.
“Poem (mad lady on the steps)”: Analyze Pettet’s work from an anthropological standpoint. The whore speaks. The junkie speaks. The crazy lady speaks. She doesn’t understand. Those who enact society’s margin are players in his poetry. They are neither judged nor romanticized. They are visible.
“Stuyvesant Park Studies”: (Not Sartre.) Say Buddha. That off-rhyme. The man in the wheelchair / goes round and round.
“Annul”: Synaesthetic. Golden yellows and browns and still resistant greens. How-to paint. Perception as the process of translation, from one sensory system to another, or from a physical process to a metaphysical proposition. Here, as elsewhere, love. In perspective.
“Supplication”: European tropes, historic melodies. Halt! Tarry you a while. Between the poem’s set-up and conclusion Pettet often opts for a wry undercutting of narrative. Humor as outcome, the surprise rendered vital in a polysemous knot of content threads.
“Self-Portrait 1978”: Thin white sparrow-haired. Consciousness owns / owes itself / self.
“Poem (wept over Delacroix’s watercolors) (Blue Room reprise)”: Pettet uses color to create emotional states, not as some sort of symbolic paysage moralisée, but more as a temperature reading in and through language. It’s possible to analyze all the color words in his work in order to unpack patterns in perception and mood. He might have been a painter. For air is a sufficient quantity of blue.
“Poem (and all the lover / ever wanted to know)”: how to get off and / how to get back on again.
“Logan’s Song”: I don’t know any other poem that successfully speaks to awareness from the point of view of a newborn baby. I am quietly looking into this face. More than evidence of Pettet’s ability to empathize. Compassion as a specific form of poetic knowledge.
“Alba”: Writing a poem in an established form requires sufficient participation in the tradition to render the form identifiable while incorporating the measure of invention necessary to distinguish the form from its historical fellows and deliver relevance to the contemporary reader. Sleep the good sleep you have slept. Sleepless Pettet puts trademark pauses in the line, as if the silence inherent in the white space affords the relaxation necessary for openings, the possibility of freedom, of wonder.
“Poem (In a universe of objects...)”: If aura is, as Benjamin proposed, a kind of interaction with the objective world, then the poem is talking.
“Star-Crossed Lovers”: Strange, isn’t it, that the minimalist banner of “less is more” so often proves correct. He spits and she. This four-line poem could easily generate pages of analysis in different theoretic schools — Freudian, Feminist, New Historicists, Deconstructionist, etc. Compression is to poem as expatiation is to critic.
Poem (more difficult than Japanese arithmetic): Indeed. How many poems of four lines or less has this guy published? The exactitude of the short poem: Pettet’s exact success.