Words are flowing out like endless rain. No Virginia, I am not just quoting John Lennon. I am surmising what Tom Beckett’s poetry stands against. Reading Beckett’s collection, Unprotected Texts: Selected Poems 1978-2006 (Meritage Press, 2006) one encounters a proactive stance against the use of words to conceal and deceive through prepackaged phrases or what Public Image Limited once called “old, tired, and worn out second hand sentences.” The language that surrounds us, the language that emanates from the media, used by politicians, dietitians, teachers, and writers of reviews hovers around us like smog, serving to hide rather than reveal, allowing time for the source to move on with as little challenge as possible. Mr. Beckett, a L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poet who began publishing in the 1970s, does best what most poets try but fail to do. He makes language jump out of the page, becoming a fluid thing to be seen, studied, and understood.
The first section of Beckett’s selection, “Allegories and allergies,” contains poems from “Little Book of Zombies.” In the first poem, “An Attractive Paradigm,” zombies are equated with both “structure” and “incident.” It seems strange at first to read a structure, a system of interrelated entities, personified as zombies, walking flesh-eating corpses. Then things get doubly weird, when the speaker equates all incidents in general with the undead flesh-eaters as well. But the connection among zombies, structure, and incidents comes clear a few lines later when the speaker states, “Anything that occurs/ in a structure/ is a feeling/ that’s part zombie.” In order for something to occur in a structure, it needs to be placed there by the mind. “An Attractive Paradigm” stands out against the co-option of the new by the modern mind, turning everything into part of a pattern that connects to what came before.
In the hands of a lesser poet, zombies in this series would be direct stand-ins for conservatives, for right wingers. We quickly learn, however, that zombies aren’t so easily put in a niche. In “Zombies aren’t,” we learn that zombies shun “organized religions.” They are not the bible thumpers and scripture-quoting menaces that we see on TV. They are the ones who “read/ telephone directory.” And who are the ones who read telephone directories? Well, zombies are you and me, analytical, analyzed, overeducated, labeling everything we see and do.
Though the subject-matter of Tom Beckett’s poetry is serious, there’s lightheartedness and good natured playfulness in much of his work. In “Never,” a part of the zombie sequence, Beckett warns us to avoid having sex with the walking dead. He ends his simple verse simply:
Similarly, “You Never Know,” the first poem in the section “Actual leitmotifs” is built on a series of clichéd lines from government bureaucracies, companies, and everyday people. By using clichés, such as “The situation couldn’t be better” and “Keep your head/ above water,” Beckett questions our own use of them in every day life, and in a way rescues them from their zombie like fate of being dead but still wandering around the world. The poem, however, stands as a true poem. In the hands of a lesser poet, this conglomeration of “worn, out second hand sentences” would have been no more than an intellectual experiment. Beckett infuses the poem with feeling through his ordering of clichés. After, “Keep your head/ above water,” the speaker warns playfully “It is better than a kick/ in the pants. Accept reality. Never mind/ the consequences.” These are a series of old, reliable pieces of advice, the type usually given by someone who is half-listening to your woes. However, as I read them in the order and form Beckett gave them, I felt the speaker cared about his readers.
Keeping your head above water is indeed better than getting kicked in the privates and, though often not acknowledge, accepting reality brings consequences with it—illusions shattered and future plans torn asunder. The speaker’s concern for the readers extends to their important role as readers. He even provides helpful advice as to how to read the poem, and by extension all of Beckett’s poetry: “You read too much into/ what I am trying to say. Stick with it to the end./ Distinguish one thing from another.” The poem ends by verbalizing the feeling I got from reading through this entire selection, “You never know.”
Indeed, it seems to be the mission of Beckett’s poetry to jar us from the comfort zone of our minds and their made up notions of the world. Poems like “Volumes” mess with genre, shifting from a short story that can be read as a poem to a poem that can be read like a short story; with gender, depicting a man having sex with a woman or with a man or with himself; and meaning, as the meaning of words and phrases shifts by being repeated in different contexts. Poems like “Moisture” and “The Nude Sentence” challenge our very understanding of the physical structure of a poem. They start out as short poems with short lines and short stanzas. Yet, they extend for pages.
Sometimes, as in “Moisture,” one haunting line – such as “The expression of perceptions prostitutes reception” – occupies an entire page. An entire front and back page of “The Nude Sentence” is made to be seen more than read as the line “How do normal people BLANK?” is repeated 138 times, three times across x 46 times down. The poem concludes in a legalistic disclaimer, the kind that media companies use when they think their performers are a bit too risqué. So the reader is made to “understand that should any reaction occur in/ response to ‘The Nude Sentence’ it is [his/her] responsibility to obtain appropriate relief.”
This disclaimer, however, is interactive. The reader is asked to consent to the statement: “I have read and understood the above information.” Then there’s a blank line requesting a signature. In the end, the poem has become a contract between reader and poet. Indeed, all great poems, all great works of literature, are contracts between reader and work. Beckett just wants us to acknowledge that truth like many other ones he digs out from our sloppy use of words, and our sloppy thinking. In the end, if readers want relief from the effects of “The Nude Sentence” and any other Beckett poem, all they need do is turn on the TV and they can return to a “normality” where words like “new,” “radical,” and “choice” are rendered meaningless as they are applied to unnecessary gadgetry.
In Beckett’s poetic world “All words are misspelled,” as he closes the long “Vanishing Points of Resemblance,” but all words have meaning. Indeed, all words are misspelled. After all, the spelling of words in any language is just an arbitrary structure of typographical symbols. For Beckett, however, this post-modern sounding truth is more than intellectual, it conveys a deeper emotional understanding of his persona.
“Vanishing Points of Resemblance” begins with the line, “Life’s defining moments are about contingency, accident and choice.” You can read volumes and volumes of philosophy and psychology books and never hit upon such a concise and precise understanding of the human condition.
But again, the intellectual insight in Beckett’s poem is also soulful and emotional. The first and last lines of the poem and, I dare state everything in between, converge in an autobiographical episode where Beckett reveals how after an auto accident in which his “head smashed against the dash,” his “brain got scrambled.” He became noticeably uncoordinated, flopping forward at the dinner table. The “normal” child of “normal” parents grew up in the 1950s, “an era that didn’t celebrate difference,” as an awkwardly tall, disjointed young man. Like with many great writers, Beckett’s personal misfortune is the readers’ great luck. The kid who suddenly, accidentally, stood-out from the stultifying, zombifying sub-urban world of the mid ‘50s has grown up to give us poetry where words and lines, as if in a relief sculpture, stand out and away from their deadening use in everyday life.
In a very informative interview with fellow poets Crag Hill and Thomas Fink that ends the book, we learn about Beckett the poet and the man. He has been in the same marriage since 1976. His poetry was influenced by Charles Olson, Gertrude Stein, and Charles Bernstein. Not surprisingly, it has also been influenced by non-poets such as Marcel Duchamp and Wittgenstein.
The most fascinating thing about the interview is the tone of Beckett’s words. He comes across as a serious poet who is also a humble man. He explains that “It’s all pretty intuitive, trial and error.” He is a tough self-critic, claiming that when he revises his writing, ten out of a hundred pages survive. Despite the fact that his great talent has not been recognized as much as it should be, he doesn’t sound bitter. He comes across as real. I even feel tempted to type, “he keeps it real.” But, though true, that would be a cliché that only a man of Beckett’s talent could rescue.